Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

Empowering farmers with high technology, low cost

Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered multispectral imaging camera sensors are revolutionizing the modern agricultural landscape. With specialized remote-sensing technology, farmers have even more visual information to monitor crop anomalies and manage their fields more efficiently.

Multispectral imaging – whether aboard an aerial drone or land robot – provides precise, targeted information that the human eye is incapable of seeing by capturing different bands of light.

This technology of image detection, which digitally manipulates several bands of optical frequencies by capturing several visible wave lengths and invisible (infra-red) images of crops and vegetation, uses those images to compare with a known database for the identification of diseases and pests.

While it can be an indispensable farming tool, at upwards of $25,000 for a complete system, it can be out of reach financially for many struggling growers.

Enter Fabio Lopes, a computer engineer at Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), who is changing the game. Lopes is developing a system with an entire software suite, for less than $2,000, and Research & Innovation will soon be accepting interested partners with whom to collaborate.

“These multispectral images are produced by proprietary multiprocessing equipment with lenses and specific optical mechanisms,” Lopes explains further. “The images can be integrated into a complex external software system and local and remote hardware, generating digital information on different aspects of culture with greater precision, using green, red-edge and near infrared wave bands.”

The benefits for farmers and the surrounding environment are significant: in addition to increasing crop yields, such technology can minimize the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water waste.

While the hardware Lopes is using to make the product cost effective may seem unelaborate, it’s the entire suite of algorithms that Lopes is designing that are highly sophisticated.

“My motto is although simple is difficult, it is cost effective and allows more people to receive help.”

In addition to capturing images in different spectral layers, the equipment has some algorithms and sensors capable of distinguishing movement and interpreting the vegetation scenario. The data of the images stored internally are combined with other data from sensors that will allow the creation of orthomosaic models in 3D.

Fabio Lopes, a computer engineer at AETIC is developing a multispectral imaging camera sensor, complete with a suite of algorithms. While a complete system can run upwards of $25k, his can be made for less than $2k, allowing farmers to affordably receive more visual information to monitor crop anomalies and manage their fields more efficiently.​

A mature student in NC’s Computer Programming program, Lopes has more than 25 years’ experience in software and hardware development for technology industries. While he has a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Brazil, he needs certification in this country.

Lopes left Brazil 18 months ago for Canada to provide a better life for his two children and wife, a neurosurgeon. He also left the successful business he cofounded and, as chief technology officer, was responsible for the development of technology prototypes for embedded navigation systems.

The researcher and inventor also holds two patents in projects and implementation of aerial protection systems using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with cutting-edge technology.

Lopes is working with 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.

Duncan is recognized as a world leader in variable-rate technology and has worked with the College in commercializing research in and developing market-ready prototypes for precision agriculture – and environmental remote sensing.

“Down the line we will be looking for somebody who might want to partner up on this low-cost multispectral camera project,” says Duncan. “This could include either collaborating with the development of the hardware or as a technical service in the use of the device in a project.”

He said the imaging camera sensors can be used either on UAVs or aboard AETIC’s advanced, rugged land rover, called RoamIO Jumbo – technology made possible from an NSERC grant through its College and Community Innovation program.

“What we’re developing right now is using the camera to detect disease or detect crop anomalies. We can look at the leaves, at the fruit and any aspect of the plant,” says Duncan, adding that initially trials will be done with vines using the College’s own vineyard at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Niagara College’s AETIC team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in agriculture, local and sustainable food production, plant growth, horticulture practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics and environmental management.

For more information, see the website.

NC experts plant research seeds at OFVC

OFVC 2020

Flooding, severe storms, shorter winters, droughts – all of these weather conditions can have a significant impact on crops. Agriculture meteorologists offer specific weather forecasts to help farmers make decisions regarding their crops, or even preventative decisions if necessary.

What if looking at weather data differently allowed growers the opportunity to determine crop suitability according to their region? And what does the data show for Niagara?

Niagara College’s Mike Duncan, PhD, is a featured panelist at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention (OFVC), to answer those questions over the next couple of days. Duncan, who is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, specializing in precision agriculture and environmental technologies, leads a thought-provoking discussion on crop suitability during climate change, at the OFVC, taking place in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Feb. 19 & 20.

Hailed as Canada’s premier horticultural event, the convention brings together researchers, producers, industry experts, associations and educators. In its 18th year, the two-day event features world-class expert speakers, trade show exhibitors and networking opportunities.

Duncan shares an overview of the expensive datasets purchased a few years ago and the results of his team of computer analysts processed through a “very sophisticated interpolation engine.”

“It’s $155k worth of knowledge that nobody else has,” explains Duncan, adding the detailed weather data can re-create the growing conditions for any crop in Southern Ontario in the last 18 years. And it will offer a look at the ground level.

“The summers aren’t really getting any hotter, but we’re having longer periods of summer than we’re used to and we’re seeing higher temperatures in winter.”

To elaborate on how things look from the ground, Sarah Lepp, senior research associate with AETIC, is discussing the resulting impact on soil. An expert in environmental science, Lepp has experience in geographic information systems (GIS), field topography dataset analysis and creating the framework to improve and update existing soil property maps in Ontario.

The panel also includes a number of R&I industry partners in the precision agriculture field. Not only will the R&I team have an interactive display on the trade show floor, featuring products and innovations in the agri-food space, but several staff are also invited speakers in several sessions.

At the panel “Food Innovation: Trends, Opportunity, Adaptation” and co-chaired by R&I’s Elizabeth Best, business development coordinator, a featured speaker is Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, senior food scientist at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.

There is growing interest in sustainable packaging for both consumers and commercial applications, that is functional, cost effective and energy efficient. Vega Lugo discusses various packaging innovations and how the agri-food industry is adapting to this change.

NC’s winemaker and instructor Gavin Robertson is co-chairing the panel: “Oenology” that looks at the current research in the grape and wine industries in the country.

For more information about the OFVC click HERE.

Derek Schulze: Cultivating a scientist

It may seem to the casual observer a big leap between human cardiac research and molecular screening of plant cell cultures. But like every other living organism, the cell is the basic building block – and the study of both comes down to basic science for Derek Schulze.

The biologist carried out research in both fields before arriving at Niagara College in 2016 to teach for the School of Environment and Horticulture Studies. For the last year, he’s also been the coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program and has served as Faculty Research Lead for several course-based projects for NC’s Research & Innovation division.

The molecular study of human blood cells is, in fact, much easier than plant study as plants have so many other chemicals that get in the way, explains Schulze. “Other than that, it’s really the same thing in terms of applying science.”

He has gathered the evidence, tested and analyzed in both disciplines, first in the medical domain and then in the plant world.

Interestingly, while he and his family owned and operated a commercial greenhouse for more than a decade prior to his role as educator, he did not possess a life-long passion for the floriculture world (although he did specialize in botany during his undergraduate Biology degree.)

In fact, growing up and before earning a Master’s degree in Biophysics and Molecular Biology from the University of Guelph (1996), Schulze was undecided about which field of science to pursue.

 “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I just loved everything about science.”

Yet he was curious and had the creativity to take on the enigmatic mysteries of the natural world. In university, he developed his critical and pragmatic way of thinking. He then spent his career applying these principles to various realms of science.

Schulze started his field of work researching plant tissue culture and molecular screening using flow cytometry (FCM) – laser-based technology used to analyze cells. From studying plant cells, he aptly transitioned into a medical laboratory studying human cells for the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University. He has also worked in electrophysiology – the study of the electrical properties of cells –conducting cardiac research.

No matter the discipline, it’s all science, he explains.

“When you’re trained as a scientist, you’re given skills on different levels. So there are specific skills like how to operate certain lab machinery,” he says.  “But the broader skills are learning how to ask questions, determining what questions are good, which ones are not and discerning what’s good information in order to formulate your plan to tackle the next question.”

This type of knowledge is universal and can be applied to any context – and something he now imparts on his students.

“That’s because the same principles exist, and a scientist needs to be able to understand how data collection works, how to mix chemicals and build a study and then implement and execute it.”

While at Queen’s and immersed in embryonic stem cells, Schulze used his free time to build a small greenhouse where he grew and sold bedding plants. This without any prior knowledge about growing plants on a scale larger than a window sill.

“I didn’t know anything about it … I just learned it.”

Schulze and his wife Karleen, who was a biostatistician for the radiation oncology unit at the University, eventually decided to leave Kingston, put their academic research careers on hold and head to Vineland to purchase and operate TJ Greenhouses.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight. Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

The business supplied 156 major grocery stores throughout Ontario with high-end bedding plants. The couple also operated their own hydroponic lettuce business.

After 13 years, the family sold the business when Schulze accepted a full-time position at Niagara College, and his wife went on to McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute.

Soon after arriving at NC, Schulze assisted his colleague Bill MacDonald in creating the Commercial Cannabis Production program, the first post-secondary credential of its kind in Canada. He also taught a number of courses including Cannabis Crop Methods, Cannabis Production Science and Technical Analysis of Cannabis.

Executing a cannabis program had certainly never entered his radar.

“I didn’t know anything about the stuff … never used it, never grown it on my own,” he says, adding he just viewed it as another crop and learned everything he could and applied basic science principles.

He has since left the cannabis program and returned to the NC greenhouse teaching a full schedule of courses to Greenhouse Technician students. Forever the scientist, Schulze has made a point to include applied research learning into his greenhouse classroom.

During one course-based project, Schulze’s students trialed a Jiffy® pre-manufactured propagation pellet and used different recipes of organic fertilizer, premixed, compressed and dried. The class grew tomatoes, peppers and lettuce in various pellets, measuring fresh weight, dry weight and then sent a final report to the company.

That report turned out to be very useful for Jiffy®. Says Schulze: “Three months after we finished the trial, I got a call from a lettuce grower wanting clarification on something because Jiffy® had used our report to sell their product to that company.”

As for the students, it gave them a chance to learn about organic methods, a medium that proves challenging to teach hands-on in class, given the complications with growing and lack of control over the nutrients.

Most recently, Schulze’s class has undertaken a project with Walker Industries to help determine alternatives to the waste issue of rockwool, a mineral wool product that is typically used as a growing medium for hydroponic vegetables and is not biodegradable.

Students are conducting a growing trial to test the quality of different finished rockwool (Grodan/compost) blends to provide a better understanding of the quality of blends and how they can be used in growing.

“It’s interesting and the students like it because they are very conscious about being environmentally responsible,” he says. “The Walker project is all about trying to do something constructive with the waste product from the greenhouse industry.”

In working on these types of applied research through the College’s Research & Innovation division, Schulze says students who are involved with these projects definitely have a leg up when starting their careers.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight,” he notes. “Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

When he’s not at the College greenhouse or teaching, Schulze “gets his thrills” flying radio-controlled airplanes – a hobby since he was 10 years old. He also restores vintage cars and during nicer weather, can be found on the water in his sailboat.

He and his wife live in Vineland with their two children and dog.

Growing trial for greenhouse solar panels

Energy costs have always been a challenge for greenhouse operations. Yet for one Ontario innovator, their advanced renewable energy technology may present a new opportunity for growers to reduce electricity costs as well as carbon footprint, while increasing crop yields.

Heliene Inc. is a Sault Ste. Marie-based solar technology manufacturer working with Niagara College to trial herb crops grown under Heliene’s greenhouse integrated photovoltaic module (GIPV) panels.  This trial is investigating the benefits of the specialized solar panels for a sustainable greenhouse industry, on the path to being carbon neutral.

The pilot project sees basil crops grown under innovative solar-power producing glass at Freeman Herbs greenhouse in Beamsville, and analyzed by student researchers from NC’s Greenhouse Technician program. It is the largest demonstration of the technology in North America.

The project started earlier this year, with Heliene installing its specialty solar panels to half an acre of Freeman Herbs production space. The GIPV panels will power the greenhouse as well as polarize the light to promote plant photosynthesis, says Heliene President Martin Pochtaruk. 

To demonstrate its technology on a real-life commercial scale, Heliene needed a trusted and neutral third party for monitoring results and approached the team at the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre at the College’s Research & Innovation division to provide a detailed analysis.

“There’s no one better than Niagara College in this specific area of applied research,” says Pochtaruk. 

“The main intent is to reduce the footprint of greenhouses by offsetting their own power consumption through solar power generation, while using different solar module backsheet materials to “bend” the frequency of the light, to those areas of the light band-width that enhances photosynthesis,” explains Pochtaruk.

The panels are integrated into the actual roof, unlike traditional solar technologies. The light-polarizing backsheets serve to filter and convert green light to red light, which reportedly improves plant growth, and the photovoltaic cells are used to generate electricity.

Two different solar panel cell arrangements are under study for growing the herbs in addition to a control crop grown under conventional greenhouse glass. The project’s results will examine the energy benefits of the solar panels for other greenhouse businesses while identifying light-related issues and any crop deficiencies. 

The trial is part of a course-based project led by NC Faculty Research Lead Derek Schulze, coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program. He employs two Research Assistants – students from his program – to make weekly trips to take detailed measurements and obtain data. 

While Freeman is overseeing and managing the crop production, the Research Assistants bring their sensors and equipment each week to assess the crops grown under the panels. They are collecting basil plant height, chlorophyll content, fresh and dry weight at harvest, as well as climate and light quality data in the greenhouse during the growing cycle. There are only a few more months of growing time left in the pilot project.

“At the end of the project, Heliene will have data- and expertise-based validation of the benefits of their solar panels for energy generation, and their effects on crop production, and overall greenhouse profitability,” says Schulze. 

For the students carrying out the research, it is an opportunity to learn about solar panels, detailed plant lighting needs, plant growth in an active greenhouse, data collection, plant yield data collection and analysis and report writing. Such experience will also set them apart when entering the job market following graduation, Schulze adds.

This project received funding from both the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) from its Voucher for Innovation and Productivity I (VIPI) program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

If the study confirms a reduction in energy costs and improvement in plant growth, Heliene will launch production of the panels on a market scale. 

“The one used at the Freeman Herbs pilot project polarizes the light as a first step of the learning; now we are preparing new solar PV modules for greenhouse applications with nano-coatings as alternatives,” says Pochtaruk, “therefore we will have yet a larger set of pilot projects to properly analyze such light bending – photosynthesis enhancing capabilities.” 

For more information on the resources and capabilities of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.

Hazelnut growers to benefit from NC research

Brian Klassen, a Research Associate with AETIC and an NC grad from the Electronics Engineering Technology Program, works on the custom circuit board for the Ferrero project. He used the Raspberry Pi platform and this circuit board to engineer a time-lapse camera (right) to take a daily photograph of a single hazelnut tree.

Italian confectioners Ferrero Canada are growing their company and require a stable supply of quality hazelnuts produced by innovative growers in Ontario.

The makers of the popular Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Nutella are anticipating upwards of 20,000 acres of hazelnuts planted across the province in the next decade, in large part to supply expansions to its Brantford, Ont. plant, now the hub of its North American operations.

The challenge is developing hazelnut orchard management practices to meet these demands as there is minimal growth tracking data of the trees. To help collect essential data to aid hazelnut growers with this mission, Ferrero has turned to Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), part of the Research & Innovation division.

This month, Niagara College student researchers will be installing two enhanced time-lapse cameras pointed at a single hazelnut tree, along with a host of surrounding ground sensors. The trial tree is located at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Grimo Nut Nursery, expert growers with 45 years experience growing and selling hazelnut trees.

The custom sensor system will monitor tree growth, catkin flowering, soil moisture, relative humidity, air temperature, and air pressure. One camera will capture the evolution of the crown and leaves; the development of branches, flowers and catkins; and pollen release timing. The second camera will be aimed at the trunk to estimate trunk growth over the season.

Subsurface soil moisture and temperature measurements at 24 locations surrounding the single tree will be installed at different depths to track the specific data.

“The resulting data and analysis will aid in accurately tracking tree growth, the evolution of soil moisture, the effects of weather on tree growth, nut quality, and nut yield,” says project strategist Mike Duncan, PhD, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, specializing in precision agriculture and environmental technologies.

Duncan says data to track tree growth and relate it to hazelnut tree models in the province is limited. “To properly understand how to best manage a hazelnut tree crop, detailed data – such as weather and other factors that directly influence nut yield and quality – is essential to support best management farming practices going forward.”

Ferrero project timelapse
The first iteration of the time-lapse camera captures leaf growth of a hazelnut tree located at Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The AETIC research team is installing an enhanced version of the camera this month to monitor tree growth.

Brian Klassen, a Research Associate with AETIC and an NC graduate with an advanced diploma from the Electronics Engineering Technology Program, used the Raspberry Pi platform and a custom circuit board to engineer a time-lapse camera to take a photograph at noon each day.

Klassen says he received some help from the team at R&I’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre with 3D printing the casing and manufacturing the acrylic camera lens on the lab’s laser cutter.

Besides gathering growing data during the winter months, one of the initial grabs will be monitoring the development of the catkin – the flowering clusters that when cross-pollinated produce nuts – and without which hazelnut trees cannot be pollinated.

While Klassen has constructed the hardware, the actual captured data will go to AETIC’s computer programming team, who have been busy since 2018 processing historical weather and future climate modelling datasets from strategic potential hazelnut growing regions throughout Ontario. This is part of the initial collaboration between Ferrero Canada and AETIC.

Duncan says the substantial sets of weather data are being processed and developed into an accessible web software for potential hazelnut growers to use and understand the historic and likely future climate in their specific sub-region of interest to inform effective planting and farming hazelnut trees.

Funding for the project is provided by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, through its College Strategic Sector/Cluster Technology Platform (CSSCTP) program.

For more information on the resources and capabilities of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.

Growing trial of greenhouse waste could help open new markets


Update as of May 12, 2021:
Following previous “instrumental” growing trials conducted by student researchers from Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, Walker Environmental Group (WEG) is advancing its development of its rockwool growing media recycling program. The company has since received funding under the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative from the Agriculture Adaptation Council to study the market development of rockwool recycling services. Walker is also working with the Ontario Greenhouse Growers Association to validate composting as a means for effectively destroying pathogens affecting greenhouse grown plants. “The work previously conducted at Niagara College has been instrumental in helping us develop this program as we work to find a suitable means for treating, recycling and creating valuable products from waste growing media,” said Greg Robles, manager, Innovation & Optimization Resource Recovery, Walker Industries.


Student researchers from Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre are playing an important role investigating uses for a waste product from the greenhouse industry. 

The research team with students from the Greenhouse Technician program are working on a course-based project with Walker Environmental Group (WEG) to explore recycling possibilities and beneficiary secondary uses of rockwool, a non-biodegradable mineral wool product.

An inorganic insulator, rockwool is also manufactured as a soilless growing medium and typically used for hydroponic fruits and vegetables.

“This type of media, which comes wrapped in plastic bags, allows growers to precisely dose fertilizers, water and other components necessary for the most optimal growth of the plants,” says Marin Dujmovic, Process Specialist at WEG. “Once crops are harvested, this media is not re-usable for growing and needs to be disposed of.”

Walker’s machinery shreds the material, separating plastic bags from the re-usable rockwool. “Once separated, plastic is disposed at the landfill (even though we are looking into re-using this plastic in manufacture of low-carbon fuels etc.) and shredded rockwool material is used as a bulking agent in compost production,” adds Dujmovic.

With its history of offering environmental waste solutions, WEG partnered with the College’s Research & Innovation division to investigate the possible benefits of using rockwool as more than just a bulking agent. 

“In theory, this bulking agent will increase compost’s moisture content (since we receive rockwool at high moisture levels, with some nutrient leftovers as well), water holding capacity, porosity and nutrients, which all have a beneficial effect on the growth of the plants,” explains Dujmovic.

Led by NC Faculty Research Lead Derek Schulze, the growing trial with a basil crop uses varying percentages of the rockwool/compost blends, compared with a control, to quantify how the plants grow. Results of this phase will determine if it’s possible and/or beneficial to use the rockwool in compost, not only as a bulking agent, but also as a compost quality enhancer.

“If there’s no impact with the highest percentage, that means they can get rid of tons of rockwool, and the plants grow just fine,” says Schulze, who’s also the coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program. 

It’s a project that proves popular with students in Schulze’s class. “It’s interesting, and the students like it because they are very conscious about being environmentally responsible.”

The team has been trialling basil because it’s a quick crop; however, growing research will be repeated this winter using different crops, says Schulze. 

If the used rockwool media is successfully incorporated into compost production, it may mean new markets for WEG as they will be “able to recycle new material (used rockwool media) on an ongoing basis with good use of the end product,” adds Dujmovic, who visits the NC greenhouse weekly to meet with the student researchers.

The growing trial received funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence through their College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program.

For more information on the resources and capabilities of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, visit the website.