Computer Programmer Research Assistant, Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre
The successful candidate will work with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team. The work includes programming, testing and troubleshooting of agricultural data management and mapping web software. The position could involve development of web/cloud/IoT services, and helping to develop robotics technology. You will work with senior team members in Computer Programming and the Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies.
For growers to capture the full potential of their soil, they need to know what the soil is providing. Enter SoilOptix®, a high-definition top-soil mapping company, using precision agriculture technology to help farmers understand and improve the health of their fields to grow better crops.
And the Tavistock, Ont. company has recently launched what it calls its “lifeblood” – a data processing portal created by Niagara College’s Research & Innovation experts.
The web portal is a customized GIS platform that involves the analysis and processing of big data to give growers the most high-resolution digital nutrient soil maps so they can farm smarter. The platform also enables customers and partners to log in, visualize and export the resulting maps, says Ryan Eyre, product integration manager for SoilOptix®.
The newest collaboration saw computer programmers within R&I’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) build the web platform, a powerful tool to streamline SoilOptix®’ data processing into a unified application.
This has made the data analysis process significantly more efficient, saving time and increasing production capacity.
Previously, SoilOptix® analysts used various applications and other processes to create a soil map and could take upwards of seven or eight hours to process each field. Today, it takes approximately 1.75 hours per field.
To achieve this streamlining, the AETIC programmers created a comprehensive web application that performs all the tasks within a single application and is robust enough to handle an array of different data types.
“The data processing portal that Niagara College has created has become SoilOptix’s lifeblood.”
~ Ryan Eyre, SoilOptix
This new system has reduced processing times on fields by approximately 50 percent, while also reducing the analyst learning curve significantly, notes Eyre.
“The data processing portal that Niagara College has created has become SoilOptix®’ lifeblood,” he says.
Using a combination of strategic physical soil samples and non-contact geological sensors to measure the soil’s naturally emitting gamma radiation, SoilOptix® analysts run this measurement data through proprietary algorithms to deliver the highest definition and most detailed field nutrient maps obtainable today.
Described by the company as an “MRI for your soil,” the maps provide levels of soil properties, including traditional nutrients and textures, to capture a deeper understanding of the variability and textural components of the soil. This empowers growers to identify strengths and weaknesses in their soil and make the best decisions for the management of their fields.
The company has seen business steadily rise, and its system is now being used in 15 countries.
With the potential for continued growth, SoilOptix® is working to advance its map-making pipelines by further reducing processing times and increasing modelling capabilities. The company is working with the AETIC team to utilize an array of artificial intelligence (AI)-based approaches to accomplish these goals. The intent is for the AI system to run in parallel to the data processing portal with the ability to fully automate the map-making processing, bringing field analysis times down to a matter of mere seconds.
“The project will increase the speed of the maps, but we are also investigating increasing the value proposition that we bring to our partner network and their growers,” explains Eyre.
The data-processing portal was the culminationof a multi-year project with the Research & Innovation division. The AETIC team was initially engaged to upgrade the original system into a new innovative web pipeline. The focus continued with the accessibility of the data to the farmers and consultants, including data visualization and data transfer with the implementation of an Application Programming Interface (API) application for field data.
“This new system has reduced processing times on fields by approximately 50 percent, while also reducing the analyst learning curve significantly.”
~ Ryan Eyre, SoilOptix
Brian Culp, a graduate (2021) of NC’s Computer Programmer Analyst (Co-op) program, has been involved with the SoilOptix® project since 2019 during his time with AETIC – first during his co-op as a research assistant and currently as a research associate in a one-year contract.
He has worked to maintain and improve the web portal for SoilOptix® and insists the benefits of such an opportunity are plentiful to his future career.
“First and foremost, I had to learn a new programming language called ‘Angular.’ This was new to me as we had never learned about it in our class studies,” explains Culp. “Having this language in my portfolio is incredibly helpful to my future as it is quite popular in the programming community.”
Culp can also add to his list of perks the advantage of working with vast amounts of data – like multiple terabytes of data. He has had to keep his math skills in top shape as the formulas and logic used in many portal elements are highly complex. He also learned to work with different visualization programming libraries to display data in various charts or maps.
“You are immersed in a real-world work environment, getting a true feel as to what life as a programmer is like,” he adds.
Eyre says he has been impressed by the work the AETIC team has done over the years. “The students have quickly learned about the needs of SoilOptix® and have created a commercial production level application that will be used for years to come.”
In fact, the company has been so impressed by the student talent, it has hired several NC graduates involved in the project to help expand the application and provide the programming capacity for new projects moving forward.
The multi-initiative projects for SoilOptix® are under the scope of Mike Duncan, PhD, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (NSERC-IRCC) in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies at the College, with phases 1 and 2 also receiving funding from the Ontario Centre of Innovation (OCI) through their College Strategic Sector/Cluster/Technology Platform Program (CSSCTP).
By Rita Sterne, PhD, project manager Greenhouse Technology Network
Did you know that modern greenhouses are largely automated and highly controlled environments to produce safe and fresh food and flowers? We are lucky here in Niagara to live close to one of the most vibrant and productive clusters of greenhouses in North America.
Led by Niagara College, the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), is a consortium of research centres helping greenhouse growers and related technology businesses solve technology-related challenges – with funding available to support applied research projects. Technologies are tools, equipment, or machines – in addition to methods, systems, or techniques for helping plants grow better, keeping costs down, and maximizing efficiencies that increase sustainability.
The modern greenhouse uses technologies across many activities, for example, plant propagation, growing, harvesting, and packaging processes. Vertical farms, often located in urban centres or remote locations, have capitalized on these technologies to bring food production closer to consumers.
Here are a few interesting examples of greenhouse-related technologies that help put safe, fresh food on our table, and beautiful plants in our homes and gardens:
• Automated heating and cooling systems that support optimal growing conditions for each plant crop
• Systems that regulate water and nutrient recipes specifically for different plant crops
• Networks of sensors in the greenhouse that feed information to growers and help them monitor growing conditions across—and to the top of—the largest greenhouses
• Computer software and apps that help growers stay in touch with conditions inside the greenhouse 24/7/365
• Artificial intelligence embedded in many technologies can improve sustainability and further lower a grower’s carbon footprint
• Drone technology now allows smart, airborne robots to play a role in a grower’s pest management strategy, for example, drones that can distinguish a moth from a bee — and take action
His is an example of how a great teacher can make a big difference in the trajectory of one’s life. For Brian Culp, his Grade 11 teacher anchored an enthusiasm for computer programming – a profession he decided to pursue.
“Mr. Digaetano at Stamford Collegiate really mentored me at that time, noticing I had the interest and skill, helped me advance my knowledge above and beyond the class requirements,” explains Culp. “I ended up spending all of my free time during the last two years of high school in his computer lab, learning all that I could.”
This past spring, Culp graduated from Niagara College’s Computer Programmer Analyst (Co-op) program and is currently employed as a computer programmer research associate with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), in the Research & Innovation Division. This after spending his co-op as a research assistant with AETIC in 2019/20.
“You are immersed in a real-world work environment, getting a true feel as to what life as a programmer is like. An added benefit was that I was able to say that I had a full year of real work experience by the time I even graduated from my course.”
At AETIC, Culp manages a small team of programming students in solving complex problems for industry partners. On his end, his work has focused on one industry partner, SoilOptix, where he has helped maintain and improve upon the analytics of the company’s advanced website portal.
The portal is used to perform advanced calculations on imported raw soil samples for SoilOptix clients, which helps growers understand their field and where there may be deficiencies, for example. It’s an incredibly challenging project that makes his classwork seem effortless, says Culp.
“Some may consider putting students onto a project this difficult as throwing them to the fire, but I found it allowed me to thrive, and have noticed this in many other students as well,” says Culp, adding he also needed to learn a new programming language, which has now given him a leg up for his career.
He also had the advantage of working with vast amounts of data – something not offered in the classroom.
“In class, we would work with a few gigabytes of data, whereas the SoilOptix project has multiple terabytes of data and is always growing.”
Throughout his time with the Research & Innovation division, Culp says he has improved his communication skills, which ultimately translates to about any field within programming.
“You are immersed in a real-world work environment, getting a true feel as to what life as a programmer is like,” he adds. “An added benefit was that I was able to say that I had a full year of real work experience by the time I even graduated from my course.”
The attributes about computer programming that have kept him hooked since high school include the mental challenges and abundant options for creativeness.
“The most interesting aspect of programming is the ability to create and manipulate something from scratch with minimal limitations,” he explains. “I like to have a problem in which I must create a solution. I find this differs from other jobs because computer programming doesn’t have the same limitations since we are in the virtual computer environment. With programming, the possibilities are endless; new tools are created every day.”
When he’s not at work or in front of a computer screen, Culp has a keen interest in weightlifting and an affinity for wrestling action figures – as demonstrated by the close to 100 figurines that stand guard as the backdrop to his computer workstation.
“The action figures are mine, in an effort to make my workspace feel more my own… I may have gone slightly overboard,” he says with a laugh. “Most of these are wrestling figures since I loved playing with these as a kid and still enjoy watching wrestling.”
Culp lives in Niagara Falls with his wife Samantha and their two young children, Nicholas and Hunter.
Andrew Benton is a 2020 graduate of Niagara College’s Computer Programmer Analyst (Co-op) program. At the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, Andrew served as a research assistant for nine months in 2019, and as research associate for the year in 2020. He is currently employed with SoilOptix as junior DevOps engineer.
Tell us about where you work and your position:
I work for SoilOptix. We are using technology to help farmers understand and improve their soil health to grow better crops and feed the world. I’m a junior DevOps engineer.
What is a DevOps engineer?
DevOps is a combination title and job path in the IT/Programming field. It is the combination of development and operations – development dealing with the actual programming and operations dealing with the IT side of things, such as running the various programs and servers that development requires for their applications.
Describe your role and what you like about it:
I am responsible for providing IT/Server support to allow SoilOptix to expand their customer base into more areas of the world. I’m also the lead developer on all web portals the company uses for processing data and making it available to customers. We are currently in the process of rewriting the original portal that does all data processing to make it faster and more flexible to add additional features. This new version takes advantage of advances in C#, Angular, and general programming best practices.
How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?
While working at R&I, we worked on processing and handling very large datasets with tens of thousands of individual data points. This required working on database optimization, filtering large amounts of information, and creating ways to allow clients to access these large amounts of data such as PDF files, heatmaps and simple CSV files.
A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?
While working for R&I, I was privileged to work on the initial version of the SoilOptix portal. This project gave me my first real experience with handling very large datasets and bug fixing on a live in-use application. The biggest lesson I learned from this was the absolute requirement of testing everything you possibly can before deploying any sort of modification, feature, or bug fix to a live, actively-used application.
What led you to Niagara College in the first place?
At the time I was stuck in a job I really did not enjoy. I always had an interest in computer programming since I was in high school. Looking around at the options, Niagara College was very close to where I live, and offered a program that covered a lot of what I wanted to learn. The co-op portion of the program was a great bonus, allowing me to experience what being a computer programmer was like and see if it was the type of career I really wanted to invest in.
Most memorable experience at NC?
My most memorable experience at Niagara College was the community sponsored project, part of our programming curriculum and is intended to give new programmers a feel for how programming in a business is likely to work. You have a team of fellow programmers, and you have a client that you have to communicate with. This provides the information and guidance that you will then use to create a working finished product.
This provided me with my first experience in communicating with a client on requirements for a programming project, as well as an introduction to working with a team of programmers. This experience shaped how I have approached client interactions and working with other team members and allowed me to grow as a person.
“Communication is almost more important than your actual technical skills. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you cannot communicate effectively, your options will be extremely limited.”
Is there a particular mentor at either R&I or a faculty member who influenced you?
Alex Davis was the senior research associate at R&I when I first started working there during my co-op. He provided me with a lot of useful information and tips during the four months I was able to work with him.
What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?
Communication is essential regardless of what career you head into. Being able to talk, explain your thoughts and interact with clients will take you very far. Talk with your teammates and your boss whenever you can. This will result in you getting promotions and recommendations for new projects and help you vastly increase your abilities.
After being in the workforce, what have you learned?
Communication is almost more important than your actual technical skills. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you cannot communicate effectively, your options will be extremely limited.
Proudest achievement since graduating?
My proudest achievement is getting hired on as a DevOps engineer and having my input be valuable to the company at which I work.
What are you passionate about at the moment?
I am passionate about learning better options and systems to provide much higher performance for processing large amounts of data.
Interests outside of work?
When I’m not working, I play a lot of video games and enjoy hiking. If I could video game and hike at the same time, I probably would.
If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?