Dr. Tom Burks

Robotics, Machine Systems, Automation

Professional Engineer (P.E.)

Tom Burks sees many opportunities for automation, where new technologies could increase productivity and quality. To remain competitive and to meet the food challenges of the coming century, producers will need to look beyond traditional approaches and see the long-term advantages of automation. Among those advantages are that machines can work tirelessly, and their accuracy is the same at the end of the day as it was at the beginning. Automation is not cheap, and machines need upkeep and periodic replacement.

Burks' lengthy training has given him expertise in a wide array of areas, including optics, sensors, computers, and machines. Specialized computer hardware and software are at the core of any modern device. Sensors gather information and feed it into the computer for decision-making, and based on instructions, the computer controls mechanical devices to perform physical tasks. Some of the devices Burks builds are part of other machines in assembly-line situations, some are vehicles that move on their own but carry human operators, and others are full-fledged robots that are programmed to perform tasks without human assistance.

Florida citrus is also threatened by a more serious disease called citrus greening, also known by the name huang long bing, or HLB, and it is also caused by a bacterium. HLB attacks all parts of the citrus tree and leads to decreased productivity and the death of the tree. Where the citrus canker project required examination of fruit on an assembly line, HLB has to be detected in the field. The project draws on Burks' expertise in optical detection systems, but there are added challenges because the device must be mobile, and it must be able to detect and distinguish disease symptoms under many different lighting conditions and on several very different kinds of surfaces. Again, the importance of the problem motivates finding solutions in spite of these complications.

For several years, Burks has been working on the problem of robotic harvesting. This project involves designing a device that can go out into the field, probably on a vehicle driven by a human operator, which can recognize fruit that is ready to pick, remove the fruit without damaging it or the plant, and place the fruit in a bin, again without damage.


  • Fruit Disease Detection using machine vision
  • Autonomous green house sprayer vehicle
  • Geospatial shock and vibration data acquisition
  • Automated citrus harvesting
    • Vehicle guidance
    • Multispectral Imaging
    • Robotic end effector’s development
    • Visual servo control
    • Manipulator development
    • Target recognition
    • Simulation of automated harvesting systems
    • Fresh fruit grading, sorting and handling


  • ABE 4171: Power and Machinery Design for Agricultural Engineering
  • ABE 5152: Electro-hydraulic Circuits and Controls
  • ABE 6005: Applied Control for Automation and Robotics
  • ABE 6031: Instrumentation in Agricultural Engineering Research

Tom Burks - Professor