Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

New Research Project Manager plants roots in Niagara

Kimberley Cathline is the new Research Project Manager of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC).

Like two sides of the same coin, agriculture researcher Kimberley Cathline has always been captured by both the science and the artistic beauty of plant life. Take the orchid, for example. A favourite flower of hers, it’s an exquisite display of precision and grown with great patience.

While she was always drawn to the natural world, for her it’s the fusion of aesthetics and the pursuit of how it all works on a molecular level that keeps her enchanted. 

“I find it amazing to see the intricate design woven into how plants operate. Everything is coordinated and operates in beautiful harmony,” she explains. “It’s fantastic to see the order of things and to understand and analyze the amazing systems within the organism.”

It’s this creative curiosity, along with plenty of experience, that she brings to her role at Niagara College as the new Research Project Manager of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC). There, she oversees projects in the areas of precision agriculture technology, environmental technology, horticultural practices, and greenhouse research.

“I am excited to be working with the team at R&I and AETIC. We have a number of fantastic projects that we’re working on in precision agriculture technologies and environmental technologies,” she says. “I hope to continue to build our research portfolio in greenhouse and horticulture and I’m excited about the team’s investigation into historic climate data and its application in looking at the suitability of crops and different plants to specific growing areas in the province.”

Part of that investigation includes technologies such as artificial intelligence, geo-mapping, data science, and yield monitors. All these technologies help AETIC to assist current and new industry partnerships in agri-food sectors, such as grain, hazelnut, and grape and wine.

She notes the significant research being done with Ferrero, makers of Nutella and Ferrero Rocher. The Italian confectioner has been seeking out areas in Ontario to grow some 20,000 acres of hazelnuts. Her team is gathering far-ranging weather and historical growing data in order to predict future climate changes and growth sustainability of the trees for potential hazelnut farmers.

The Innovation Centre is also utilizing agriculture robotics technology, with its AI drones and a new remotely operated land rover, called RoamIO Jumbo, which is equipped with GPS navigation capability and visual image-capturing cameras in order to help farmers by observing or identifying diseases early.

I’m excited about the team’s investigation into historic climate data and its application in looking at the suitability of crops and different plants to specific growing areas in the province.”

Kimberley is excited to manage these projects, and to put her educational background to work for AETIC. She holds a BSc (Hon. with Distinction) in Plant Biology from the University of Guelph (2002) and an MSc in Biological Sciences, specializing in Plant Sciences, from Brock University (2017). She also has 15 years’ experience in applied agriculture research, much of it in viticulture science.

She was first introduced to the world of wine after being persuaded to leave her Barrie, Ontario roots for a Staff Research Associate position at the University of California, Davis, one of the world’s leading cross-disciplinary research and teaching institutions. They needed someone with a strong background and understanding of plant biology that could be applied to research with grapes.

Not surprisingly, to offset the science in the lab, in her spare time, Kimberley took part in a part-time internship for an event planner, doing floral design. “It was great to flex my creative side as well as my scientific side.”

While in California she met her husband, a Chilean on a tennis scholarship, who was pursuing a business degree. They married there and share a daughter together. When permanent residency was not an option for the couple, they headed back to Canada in 2013, she accepting a Senior Research Technician position at the Vineland Research & Innovation Centre, and he as Tennis Coach (and later Director) at The Club at White Oaks Conference Resort.

While working full time, Kimberley earned her Masters degree from Brock (finishing at the top of her class), where she studied gene transcripts that are produced by grapes during the appassimento drying process, prior to winemaking.

After spending several years in applied horticulture research at Vineland and then serving as Manager, Special Projects for the Department of Strategic Planning and Research Management, Kimberley was promoted to assume the portfolio of Corporate Secretary responsibilities in 2018, ensuring compliance and facilitating regulatory governance. She was recently certified as a Governance Professional of Canada.

But she still had the call of learning more and putting that research into action. “I’m drawn to applied research because I get to see the immediate impact of solving industry problems – real-world problems,” she says of her decision to make NC her new home.

She will be overseeing a team of 13, including computer programming, data analysis, electronics, robotics, horticulture, greenhouse, and geospatial information systems GIS) students, and recent graduates, as well as research experts and faculty in environmental and horticulture programs. Given the breadth of research projects at both campuses, Kimberley will split her time between Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

These days, newly living in Fonthill, Kimberley and her daughter are involved in a special volunteer activity called Lunch Angels – Community Crew, through her church. The duo helps to write and decorate hundreds of custom inspirational notes that are attached to the lunch bags for each child at participating schools.

“It’s so wonderful; I had wanted my daughter to volunteer in some way, but at eight years old, it’s difficult to know what to do,” she says. “This way she and I go one night every other week and she gets to provide personalized messages for other children to brighten their day during lunch.”

And while her husband is a professional tennis coach and she did try her hand at the game early on in their relationship, she never took to actually playing the sport. However, she did discover a passion as a spectator.

“I had never given tennis a second glance before meeting my husband. Now we watch it together and love going to see it live,” she adds. “When we retire we would like to travel around the world watching tennis tournaments and all the Grand Slams.”

For now, she’s looking forward to picking out the perfect orchids to decorate her new office space.

CFWI Innovation Centre offers expertise to SIAL winners

Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre had a strong presence at the food start-up pitch competition at SIAL Canada’s largest North American food event on May 1 in Toronto.

CFWI IC Centre Manager Lyndon Ashton acted as the master of ceremonies for the “Food Scale-Up Pitch” event and Senior Food Scientist, Dr. Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, served as a judge for the 14 semi-finalists, joining other industry leaders, investors, media, retailers and technical advisors, and other entrepreneurs from the food industry.

The Food Scale-Up’s Pitch Competition, by SIAL Canada, a leading name in the agri-food industry, offered eligible food entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their food product, or new technology related to the food manufacturing industry, to an expert jury. Food start-ups also received access to industry experts on business development, PR, branding, consumer trends and more.

First place prize was given to Maple Bee Nectar and received a booth at SIAL Canada 2020; Culcherd receives a 20-hr consultation with experts from CFWI Innovation Centre and two companies tied for third prize: Sachili and La Dee Da Gourmet Sauces, each earning 10-hours each with CFWI IC.

“We just saw one of the participants today who won second prize, and they said that after the pitch competition, the business just sparked, and went from 500 units per month to 600 units per week,” says Vega Lugo. “The excitement of the participants while doing their pitch was a magnet for investors and others at SIAL, the largest North American food event.”

Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery Conference

Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division was well represented at the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Discovery conference in Toronto May 13 and 14. The annual innovation-to-commercialization event brings together industry, government, academia, entrepreneurs and students to collaborate.

NC’s centres of excellence include: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, introducing the RoamIO Jumbo, an advanced land rover; the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre, featuring the sugar-conscious cookies from industry partner Bald Baker; and the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, demonstrating Industry 4.0 solutions.

Each year Discovery unites leading organizations and minds to foster collaboration and innovation across sectors such as manufacturing, health, and digital media. The showcase features expert speakers and panels to discuss leading-edge technologies, best practices and research.

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.

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 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 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, explains Duncan, 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.