Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

Partnering with Confectioner Ferrero

Text by: Michael Hanemaayer


It’s not just Nutella that has been brought to Ontario. It’s also an opportunity for an explosion in hazelnut farming in the province.

Ferrero has a modernized plant in Brantford, Ont., which was built in 2006, where products such as Nutella, Tic Tac and Ferrero Rocher are created for places within North America, and exported all the way to Australia.

Since hazelnuts are a critical ingredient for their products, Ferrero has been looking to start growing larger crops of hazelnuts (than currently exist) here in Ontario, to have a location close to the plant where their products are being created.

In an effort to determine the best location for hazelnuts in the growing areas around the plant, Ferrero wanted to compile a database outlining which regions are the best candidates and what effects from climate change they could expect in those regions.

Enter Niagara College, who Ferrero partnered with to collect a massive amount of historical growing data on the surrounding areas to determine the best location for growing a large amount of hazelnuts – 20,000 acres, in fact, is Ferrero’s goal.

The information, gathered by environmental/farm sensors and other forms of data collection, has been analyzed by the Niagara College research team, and compiled into a database, which will be used to predict the future climate changes and growth sustainability of the trees for potential hazelnut farmers.

The data collection done by both Ferrero and Niagara College also resulted in the co-creation of the software that will help to predict the changes that might occur as a result of climate change.  

This research project was made possible by funding from Ontario Centres of Excellence College Strategic Sector/Cluster/Technology Platform (CSSCTP) program.

To learn more about the work of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies division, visit the web page.

RoamIO Land Robot Hits the Ground

Research & Innovation’s RoamIO Jumbo land robot has opened the door to new opportunities for future industry partners in precision agriculture.

Text by: Michael Hanemaayer


Last fall, the Research & Innovation division at Niagara College welcomed a new member to its team in the form of the land rover RoamIO Jumbo, which has opened the door to new opportunities for future industry partners in precision agriculture.

Built by Korechi Innovations, the RoamIO Jumbo is a remote-controlled land robot that is highly customizable and workable for the students and research leads who are working with, modifying, and operating the machine.

The 400-lb rugged machine will be able to conquer the previous difficulties that came with operating a remote-controlled vehicle on the ground, such as uneven terrain or unexpected obstacles, i.e. rocks and trees, while allowing for ease of use in places such as vineyards.

Some of the high-tech features being tested, added or modified on the robot include a camera to provide visuals of the crops and fields, as well as a sensor that is able to detect the hot and cold spots in a field, allowing for an elevation in the quality of the yield from crops. The robot will also have aerial support via unmanned drones.

With the ability to monitor weather (temperature and humidity) in various locations throughout a field, in real time, losses due to temperature changes and disease can be greatly reduced thanks to RoamIO. And with an onboard generator, it’s able to patrol vineyards 24 hours a day.

The project was made possible thanks to a grant of $94,000 from NSERC (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada).

RoamIO will be working with grape growers in Niagara collecting crop imagery in vineyards for grape health analysis, ripeness estimation and ultimately yield prediction.

For more information about Niagara College’s smart farming technology click here.

Where are they now?: Brendan Spearin

Brendan Spearin is a 2013 graduate of Niagara College’s GIS – Geospatial Management program and was a GIS Research Associate for Research & Innovation’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre from 2012 to 2014. Brendan is currently the Aquatic Invasive Species, Regional Coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

A little about what your job entails…

A new position, the goal of my unit is to coordinate with regional stakeholders (provinces, conservation non-government organizations (CNGOs), and Indigenous groups) to implement the four key pillars: prevention and outreach; early detection and surveillance; response; and control and management.

How has your R&I experience helped you prepare for your current role?

While working at Research & Innovation, I felt that I was given a lot of independence towards how I solved the problems that I was assigned. That said, I always knew that [Senior Research Associate] Sarah Lepp and [Research Lead] Dr. Mike Duncan would be there to help if I was stuck or needed some guidance.

I got to be involved in client meetings and these formal and professional meetings were excellent examples of a business atmosphere. Taking that professionalism and knowledge into the workplace allowed me to immediately make an impact.

“The way artists and game designers are able to convey so much about the world through the way that they build maps is inspiring!”

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

It was recommended to me by a number of GIS professionals at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs where I worked as an Assistant GIS Technician after graduating from university. One of the research fellows even took me out to meet Dr. Mike Duncan, so the chance to work with him while attending college was an opportunity that I could not let pass.

Most memorable experience at NC?

Working for Research & Innovation was the highlight of my Niagara College experience. Being able to work in my field, gaining experience, while also completing my post-graduate degree, was something that I am extremely grateful for.

A faculty member who influenced you?

Dr. Jiang was an amazing teacher who also supported my Niagara College thesis. I learned a lot from him, especially from our one-on-one thesis meetings. Without him, my programming skills would be nowhere near what they are today. Ian Smith was also an excellent teacher; his passion for the environment and GIS were great to see and his classes always felt so alive.

Top 3 skills you obtained from your time at NC:

1. Professionalism.
2. Drive – to never turn it off.
3. Humility – admit when you do not know and need help!

Proudest achievement since graduating:

As part of my previous job, I got to work directly with academic institutions, Indigenous groups, and CNGOs on applications for the Coastal Restoration Fund. Thanks to their hard work, a number of Arctic projects were funded through this national contribution and grants program.

I also worked on the Recreational Fisheries Conservation and Partnerships Program, a national competitive program that enabled me to work with local organizations to improve recreational fish habitat across Canada. The drive of these local organizations and their work ethic and final products (restored habitats, new fishways or spawning shoals, stabilized stream banks) were truly inspiring.

What advice would you impart on current research students or future alumni?

Work hard, show initiative, and be professional in all that you do. You will reap what you sow.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

That you will never stop learning. I’ve changed jobs and projects quite a few times throughout my career with DFO and each switch has required me to sit down and do a hell of a lot of reading, talking with peers, and research.

Interests outside of work?

I’m a huge gamer. I love everything from board games to DnD (Dungeons & Dragons) to TF2 (Team Fortress 2). It’s actually what partly drew me into the world of GIS – I absolutely love maps. The way artists and game designers are able to convey so much about the world through the way that they build maps is inspiring.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Stop being mean to people you don’t know on the Internet.

Dr. Mike Duncan: Changing the face of ag tech

Inside the research lab at Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre where Mike Duncan,PhD and his team are exploring sophisticated technologies, including robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques.

Without question, Carl Sagan had an effect on many scientists during his life and enduring legacy. For Research & Innovation’s Mike Duncan, who has his PhD in Agricultural Physics, it was a story by the famed astronomer that intrigued him years ago. Sagan made the comparison between people and snails and pondered how long it would take people to evolve to the point where they too could carry a house around on their backs.

The answer, of course, is that humans developed a brain – an evolution that has equipped them to invent technology and build their own houses, explains Duncan, adding that human innovations have allowed them to adapt faster and more easily to any environment on earth than their snail counterpart, who spent 500 million years perfecting its house.

“The point is that we can very quickly adapt and evolve techniques and tools that can solve most of the problems we have,” says Duncan, who makes it his mission at Niagara College to examine, and define the future technologies that will change the face of agriculture.

He recognizes the severity of challenges currently facing farmers – a rising global population, with an urgent need to produce more food, more efficiently and with more environmental stewardship – in the face of fewer farmers, a shrinking amount of farmed land, and climate change realities. Still, he believes that precision and regenerative agriculture technology may just help save the planet.

“We are very much capable of mitigating all these problems through technology and the technology is a by-product of our own evolution,” he insists. “This is true even if all the technology does is tell us how many trees to plant and where to plant them.”

With an interdisciplinary background that includes academic pursuits in atmospheric remote sensing using aircraft and radar, as well as business experience in software development, supercomputers, and large-scale virtual reality, Duncan has found creative applications for all these skills since arriving at the College in 2001 as an industry expert in virtual reality. He was a founder of the Centre of Advanced Visualization (CFAV), a research group dedicated to exploring the use of virtual reality for urban and land use visualization. He has been the recipient of major awards and grants both provincially and federally, which allowed him to found the Augmented Reality Research Centre (ARCC) in 2006 to expand his research into precision agriculture, agricultural remote sensing, and visualization.

Today, Duncan is recognized as a world leader in precision agriculture – which utilizes smart technologies aimed at using fewer resources to grow more – and is entering his eighth year as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (NSERC-IRCC) in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies at the College.  

“We are very much capable of mitigating all these problems through technology and the technology is a by-product of our own evolution.”

He’s a devoted proponent of transparent knowledge transfer in the pursuit of helping the planet and partners within farming communities throughout Ontario and Canada while working with his research team, comprised of computer programming, electronics, robotics, and GIS students, and recent graduates. With the appointment of the national research chair came the founding of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) at Niagara College. The centre carries on the agriculture technology work he first started and collaborates with a wide variety of partners, including farmers, commodity organizations, agricultural consultants/agronomists, agricultural technology organizations, and food companies. 

In the early days of AETIC, Duncan was the principal designer of Niagara College’s Crop Portal, an interactive web software system that houses and processes farm data, such as yield and topography, into colour-coded maps, allowing farmers and crop consultants detailed insight into their fields’ productivity variability. The platform has recently been expanded to allow farmers and scientists not only more flexibility to visualize and verify their data, but to also have the capability to manipulate their own algorithms.

Niagara College’s Crop Portal is an interactive web software system that allows farmers and crop consultants detailed insight into their fields’ productivity variability.


And more recently, he has dug deep into new and sophisticated technologies, including robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques. The AI work focuses on the ‘suitability problem’ while the robotics is aimed at in-field 24/7 remote sensing work. 

“The suitability work partially addresses climate change concerns where weather data is used to assess the viability of crops in different areas as the weather changes,” explains Duncan, “and the robotics work will initially address autonomous navigation and then move on to problems such as estimating grape yields in vineyards.”

For these pioneering endeavours, Duncan has brought together agricultural companies, agTech investors, tech-savvy farmers, and inventors for agri-food and agriculture technology collaborations in applied research at the College.

“The idea is to both examine, and define, the future technologies that will drive a remotely-operated farm business,” he says, adding that for project partners, this will create intellectual property to refine current and develop new products and services.

One of AETIC’s most ambitious and far-reaching projects, says Duncan, is the work being done with Italian confectioner Ferrero. The research project involves the idea of the suitability of an area to a hazelnut crop and is applicable globally and under a variety of climate change scenarios. The area where a crop grows is characterized by very detailed weather data and that characterization is used by seven AI algorithms to compare with other potential growth areas for that crop. 

“The idea is to both examine, and define the future technologies that will drive a remotely-operated farm business.”

The detailed weather data is generated using a numerical weather model, which can re-create the weather over the last 18 years in Southern Ontario at one-hour intervals. Indeed, the model generates 140 weather variables at over 30,000 points, to allow the AI algorithms to make very accurate maps of suitable growing areas for a given crop. 

“It also allows us to evaluate whether crops that currently grow in the area will be able to grow given various warming scenarios resulting from climate change.” 

The technique being developed is very flexible, and the weather data, which is being generated by the wizards at the environmental engineering firm RWDI, is also applicable to a huge variety of problems, past, present and future, which Duncan points out was the reason for getting involved in the project in the first place.

“The ‘forensic’ weather data can be used to go back and characterize the growing conditions for any crop in Southern Ontario in the last 18 years.”

The agricultural resources at Niagara College include a 40-acre campus vineyard, which Duncan first instrumented with multiple temperature sensors in late 2006. Sixteen sensors revealed a virtual cacophony of variability. Duncan remembers seeing and recording temperature changes of 10 degrees over distances as short as a few metres and over a few minutes. However, when he consulted with experts, he was told that his sensors were ‘broken.’

“At that point, I realized that I might be doing something new,” he says. No one in the field was used to looking at the really detailed behaviours of temperature, and as it turns out, most other variables as well. He has since developed a unique set of analytics that can deal with this variability and provide farmers with better information.

The research lab’s development of agricultural robots, explains Duncan, will help the AETIC team develop a stable, self-navigating platform that can then act as a prototyping tool for industry partners to conduct their own research. The intent of this work is to develop a generally useful platform that can then be applied to a large number of farms and other challenges.

The newest member to the AETIC team is an advanced, rugged land rover, called RoamIO Jumbo, which is able to patrol vineyard rows with ease 24/7 thanks to an onboard generator. The land robot, built by Korechi Innovations, will be able to carry a number of sensors, including thermal imagers, traditional image capturing cameras, LiDARs, SONARS, temperature probes, relative humidity probes, soil moisture probes, and more. All these sensors will help farmers increase profitability or even help save their crops. And with this innovative platform, there is potential to incorporate AI to analyze the data in real-time.

Dr. Mike Duncan with the RoamIO Jumbo, a state-of-the-art agriculture robot capable of carrying a number of sensors to help farmers increase profitability or even save their crops.

With the grape growers in Niagara, Duncan’s current work with Korechi robotics includes the collection of crop imagery in vineyards for grape health analysis, ripeness estimation, and ultimately yield prediction. And for its work with Ferrero, the state-of-the-art land rover will be able to sense nut grove conditions in real time and can even be mounted with an industrial fan to help with pollination of hazelnut trees should a lack of wind in the tight growing season occur.

The advantage of ground drones, such as RoamIO, over conventional air drones, is that the cameras mounted on it are close to the ground, and in the case of grape vines, this allows them to look up into the canopy, giving access to parts of the vines where diseases and infestations occur. The same is true in orchards and plantations.

There are very few robots out there in farm fields to take on these complex challenges, so Ontario may soon find itself at the forefront of agriculture robotics technology, adds Duncan. Precision agriculture is the future of farm businesses and Niagara College is taking a leading role to help growers reach profitability, efficiency, and sustainability on the farm.

To learn more about the work of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies division, visit the web page.

R&I researchers evaluate efficacy of Silamol: Greenhouse Canada

(L-R) Student researchers Evan Hadley and Charlie Laport with Frontline Growing Products president Dave de Haan and NC horticulture professor Mary Jane Clark, with Verbena plants from the research study in the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus greenhouse.

On March 11, writers for Greenhouse Canada published an article on the work of the Niagara College Research & Innovation team in evaluating the efficacy of Silamol, a silicon product used in industry to help reduce the negative impact of biotic and abiotic stress in plants. Student researchers at NC took part in this research project under the guidance of professor and research lead Mary Jane Clark, with the support of Frontline Growing Products Inc. Research was conducted in the greenhouse at the College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus.

Read the story here: Greenhouse Canada