Category Archives: Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre

NOW HIRING: Greenhouse Research Assistant position available with our Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team

Greenhouse Research Assistant

The individuals will work with the Faculty Leads to oversee plant growth, apply fertilizers/irrigation, etc., and assess and measure growth. The successful candidates will collect data from the growing trials and help to prepare update reports and a final report summarizing the final results.

Click HERE to see the full job posting. The deadline to apply is Friday, August 30th , 2019 at 12PM.

To apply, please email your resume, cover letter, transcript and class schedule to [email protected] and reference job posting ‘Greenhouse/Horticulture Research Assistant’ in the subject line. 


We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.

German farmers reap agricultural & horticultural insight in NOTL

On July 19th, a group of farmers from Northern Germany made their way to Niagara College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus to discover the school’s agricultural and horticultural technologies and capabilities. The group – mainly cabbage growers – are all independent farmers, but are part of an association called “Maschinenring Dithmarschen,” a machinery/professional pool with access to affiliated companies to help agricultural farmers.

The Research & Innovation division presented research projects and capabilities from the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) and then provided a tour of the Niagara College greenhouse facilities.

The AETIC team offered an overview of R&I’s agriculture and environmental technologies, such as meteorology, geomorphology, sustainability, artificial intelligence, big data, data mapping & visualization, data analysis, rovers, UAVs, and software. The team of students, graduates and staff also described research into variety trials, IPM, lighting, fertilization, irrigation, photovoltaics, production practices, nursery, cannabis, and hydroponics.

The farming delegation were able to learn how NC, through precision agriculture technologies, is helping farmers here make more informed decisions about crop planting and yields while empowering growers to mitigate problem areas, opening new doors for revenue.

Sarah Lepp, Senior Research Associate with AETIC, discussed the benefits of NC’s crop portal, an interactive web software that houses and processes farm data, such as yield and topography, into visual digitized 3D maps, giving farmers and crop consultants detailed insight into their fields’ productivity variability.


Expanding cannabis applied research

The research equipment will be installed on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus in the same area as the current Commercial Cannabis Production Program building (shown above).

The Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) is getting equipped to enter into cannabis applied research, thanks to a recent grant for dedicated space and specialized equipment to complete trials for the cannabis industry.

The $149,918 grant to Niagara College (NC) through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) from the Applied Research Tools and Instruments Grants (ARTI) program will cover the purchase and outfitting of a 40-ft segregated container. The AETIC Cannabis Production Research Chamber will enable the testing and utilization of sensors, unique lighting arrays, and other innovative concepts that require applied research work prior to use in licensed producers’ spaces, and commercial adoption.

Michelle Smith, who is a research lead for AETIC and a technologist for NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) program – the first post-secondary credential of its kind in Canada, which launched in September 2018 – says the recent funding announcement will expand the College’s research capacity in cannabis.

Canada has a unique opportunity to be a world leader in cannabis production and NC holds a strategic position to support Canada’s cannabis producers and supporting industries. “Leading in cannabis production will include innovating and executing applied research in production technologies, crop management, support crop inputs, pest and disease management, sensors, and a combination of these elements,” notes Smith.

The objectives of the Research & Innovation applied research projects will be to help improve and maintain cannabis quality; prevent and reduce crop losses; provide commercialization support for cannabis production technologies and techniques; and integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.

The new units will be installed next to the academic growing areas of the College’s Commercial Cannabis Program, which includes five 20-ft secure shipping containers, on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. The AETIC Cannabis Production Research Chamber will include growing space that is controlled and isolated in order to perform safe, secure, and dependable research projects that will not negatively impact the academic crops.

“The equipment will help train students on controlled growing trials, cannabis production innovations, and for some students, there will be longer term paid project opportunities to be part of applied research work,” adds Smith.

The equipment and associated research will also help to support the more than two million square-feet of cannabis growing space in Niagara – and 8.7 million across Canada – in an industry that is anticipated to have legal recreational sales as much as $4.34 billion in 2019, and medical cannabis that is expected to generate an additional $0.77 to $1.79 billion in sales.

Read more about this announcement:

Artificial Intelligence in the vineyards?


from left: Dalton Pearson, NC Computer Programmer Analyst graduate & Research Associate with R&I; Brian Klassen, NC Electronics Engineering Technology graduate & Research Associate; Nolan Thomas, NC Renewable Energy Technician graduate & Research Assistant; and Andrew Nickel, Research Associate & NC Electronics Engineering Technology graduate.

Niagara College is at the forefront of agricultural robotics technology, with its complement of aerial drones and enterprise-level software systems. Now a 400-lb remotely operated rover, named RoamIO Jumbo, is undergoing field testing to refine high-precision engineering onboard that will help accurately predict vineyard yield estimates for grape growers.

These field trials are taking place at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus vineyards by members of the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) research team, after months of in-lab engineering. The technical advancement project, which also includes optimizing autonomous navigation capabilities, is in collaboration with industry partner Korechi Innovations, the creators of the RoamIO robot.

RoamIO is outfitted with various sensors, including traditional image capturing cameras, LiDARs, SONARS, temperature probes, soil moisture probes and more. All these sensors will help grape farmers increase profitability or even help save their crops by better understanding the total expected yield and the variability across the vineyard.

Thanks to a federal grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the College was able to purchase RoamIO last year, and is now working with Korechi to optimize the robot’s autonomous navigation and spatial awareness capabilities and enable it with computer vision to obtain accurate and variable yield estimates.

The first phase of the agricultural robot project involved the AETIC team working with Korechi’s original onboard software to refine the auto-navigation programming using waypoint GPS technology to improve the rover speed, rather than having it stop to recalibrate for position for a fraction of a second every 10 metres.

“The College team implemented 2D LiDAR because it has a higher degree of precision for obstacle detection and collision avoidance,” says Sougata Pahari, Founder & CEO of Korechi. “Niagara College has been instrumental in solving these problems and others are in progress.”

For the navigation system, the research team works collaboratively with Korechi’s engineers – including two full-time software coders – who also provide rigorous testing on the work carried out by NC for validation.

Pahari is already bringing this auto-navigation capability to the market, giving demonstrations using other land rovers his team has built. His target market is 20- to 200-acre vineyards, with a secondary market of golf courses, as the enhanced platform allows better performance in open fields. He’s also working on a software app to be used on a tablet.

“We’re not talking about 100 percent autonomy at the moment and that’s probably for the best, because farmers want to have a say in how their farms are operated,” notes Pahari.


The second and current phase of the project brings in artificial intelligence (AI) to capture specialized views of a vineyard, and different types and colours of grapes, to get an accurate and variable yield estimate.

Typically, a grape harvest yield prediction involves workers taking samples by hand from areas of a vineyard and then making an educated guess for the entire field.

“The problem is accuracy: while humans can only get within 25 percent error, machine vision, however, can get within 10 percent error,” explains Andrew Nickel, Research Associate and a NC Electronics Engineering Technology program graduate who is overseeing the multi-phase project.

There is also the challenge of yield varying considerably from year to year and also geographically within the field due to soil conditions, pests, and climate. And Niagara is more susceptible to this than most grape growing regions, says Nickel, who is also a former grape vineyard owner.

“In Niagara we have always had variable growing seasons, whereas winemaking in Chile or Australia is like Groundhog Day; every season is the same.”

Instead, the innovative technology being created within the Research & Innovation division involves designing the vision system using commercial hardware and camera systems. It’s a challenging endeavour to program such precise machine learning algorithms for grape identification, colour and counting given the array of variables, such as differing grape size, cluster shapes and lighting conditions.

Once complete, the field data will give farmers a window into the total expected yield and variability across the vineyard, allowing for more accurate sales and revenue prediction. The farmers can also use the data to better manage their vineyards by using measures such as variable rate fertilization and variable rate fungicide application to improve their yield.

“It’s been a tremendous partnership and Niagara College is such a great institution that it lends more legitimacy whenever we go talk to potential customers,” adds Pahari. “Everyone recognizes Niagara College as one of the leaders of knowledge in the vineyard space in Canada.”

The Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) research team is comprised of computer programming, electronics, robotics, and geospatial information systems (FIS) students, and recent graduates. The team is led by Mike Duncan, PhD, who is in 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.

The Science of Healthy Roots

Daynan Lepore-Foster (student researcher), Mary Jane Clark (research lead), Craig Willett (A.M.A. Horticulture), Melissa Drake (student researcher), Rain Avila (student researcher), Jason Henry (Vineland Research), Rick Bradt (A.M.A. Horticulture)

UPDATE: June 25, 2020:

This project so far has demonstrated that significantly reducing root defects in containerized tree production is achievable through better propagation methods and transplanting to a container that allows tree roots to continue air pruning prior to final sale. Laterally developed roots reduce tree die-off and improve the changes for tree establishment and long life. With trees becoming valued assets to communities, the importance of long living trees increases.

Costs attributed to replacing trees dying within a few years of planting are significant. It is more cost effective to start with a higher quality tree that establishes and thrives quickly. The right growing container is key to this. A.M.A. Horticulture developed RootSmart™ in partnership with the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre to improve tree propagation quality. This project proves that technology and moves it to the next stage. A.M.A. sells these products across North America and RootSmart™ is slowly going across the world (New Zealand and France so far). Improved tree quality with the right growing containers is needed in our industry. This is a slow-to-change industry and it’s anticipated three to five more years for significant take up of RootSmart™ and the growing container(s) that were chosen to bring to market as a result of this research. It’s still early on the growing container part, as trees take time to grow.

Healthy root systems are critical for long-term health and survival of trees.

When root complications occur, such as root girdling, the lifespan of trees is reduced. Girdling is when, instead of growing laterally into the surrounding soil, the roots grow in a circle, which eventually chokes the trunk, killing the tree over time.

Research has shown that root defects (i.e., girdling) usually start during propagation, when roots come into contact with the walls of a growing container or tray, rerouting growth in an unnatural direction. Once root growth direction is set, a root does not reposition itself as a tree matures. These root defects, especially girdling roots, may not be obvious until many years later when it’s too late to save the tree.

Enter RootSmart™ a propagation system, developed in partnership between A.M.A. Horticulture Inc. and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, which prevents girdling in the first vital stages of root growth. As a wall-less, bottomless tray, RootSmart™ is uniquely designed to encourage lateral root growth without obstruction from the container.

Niagara College Horticulture students have conducted the first phase of on-campus research trials using the RootSmart™ propagation tray system to help grow healthier white oak seedlings, under the guidance of Mary Jane Clark, Horticulture professor and faculty research lead working with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre at Research & Innovation.

Oak trees in particular have unique deep-growing tap root systems and can be challenging to propagate, says Clark, due to root defects developing during early growth as roots come into contact with the propagation tray’s walls. After propagation, preventing root defects continues to be important when growing a healthy oak tree.

In collaboration with A.M.A. Horticulture, Inc. and the Chautauqua community in Niagara-on-the-Lake, NC Horticulture students are investing into a long-term research project to study propagation and production methods throughout the five years while each generation of oaks is growing at the College.

“During propagation in the RootSmart™ trays, we tested three watering methods and two application rates of a controlled-release fertilizer product,” explains Clark. “Currently, we are testing three container types and two Osmocote® controlled-release fertilizers during the first outdoor growing season. The goal is to efficiently grow healthy root systems for the oak trees until they are ready to be transplanted back into the Chautauqua community in Niagara-on-the-Lake as an urban reforestation project.”

Earlier this year NC Horticulture student Daynan Lepore-Foster shared the research team’s findings at the 2019 Landscape Ontario Nursery Growers Short Course. 



 “At A.M.A., we are proud to deliver innovative solutions to our customers. But if we want to continue driving innovation in our industry, we have to make sure we’re connecting with the next generation of growers,” says Rick Bradt, Managing Director of A.M.A. “Their enthusiasm and vision for our industry is inspiring, and we are excited to see what horticulture will look like in the next five to ten years.” 

Where Are They Now?: Ryan Tunis

Tunis graduated from the Computer Programmer, Computer Software Engineering program in 2016 and worked in the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre at Research & Innovation for four years, first as a Research Associate, and then, as a Senior Research Associate. Ryan began his new role as Software Developer in June 2019 with Anova, a global leader in remote monitoring, and industrial technology.

Tell us about where you work:
Anova does sensor networking for the industrial industry. Anova has a growing network of over 350,000 cellular, satellite, and LPWAN devices in 65+ countries around the globe.

Describe your role and what you like about it:
I am a software developer. The sheer volume of data that flows through this system is astonishing. The environment is very start-up like with all the newest tech and a comfortable working environment. Sit/stand desks, you get your own high tech laptop, which is easily one of the best you could possibly buy in terms of hardware.

Please give us an idea of what types of related things you’ve been doing prior to this recent position.
I worked at a company called ServicePRO, which does workflow management software and quickly moved into a senior role after a few weeks of working there. It’s not my cup of tea though; I prefer the big data scene.

How has your Research & Innovation experience helped you prepare for your current role?
If it weren’t for R&I I would not have had the time or opportunity to experiment with the latest and greatest technology that everyone is moving towards today. I would not have the experience to know how to handle situations where I know very little about it and still walk out on top. I also know a lot more about farming than I ever thought I would.

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?
Re-architecting the Crop Portal, AgroTelligent, RRx, and RTAG into one massive micro service application really allowed me to grow my skills as a full stack developer. I can now confidently say that I can build any application from the ground up and take it from alpha to production ready code.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?
I was a framer for seven years prior to going to Niagara College to study Computer Programming. I have always loved the idea of creating something and looking back at it and thinking, “Yeah, I made that… nice.” The challenge was trying to get that same feeling without having to push your body to its physical limits every day and endure the cold and heat throughout the year. So naturally, I thought, “well, programming is kind of like building houses, so let’s give that a go,” and I fell in love with it. The best thing about it is if you make a mistake, you just have to delete the lines of code that don’t work, if you make a mistake building a house you could end up ripping an entire wall down and having to rebuild it again.

If it weren’t for R&I I would not have had the time or opportunity to experiment with the latest and greatest technology that everyone is moving towards today.”

Most memorable experience at NC?
I attempted to create an autonomous rover that was wired up with an Arduino and a whole slew of various sensors. I then programmed coordinates into it to feed to the GPS, compass, and servo, to get it to try to follow a path. After hundreds of test runs, I only succeeded once. I think it was a pure fluke or something to do with GPS drift because it never followed the route again, it would only go in the route’s general direction to the way point. Either way, that’s still a victory. Oh, and you could also control it manually with an Xbox controller.

A faculty member who influenced you?
Cliff Patrick was a fantastic teacher. I remember the day I had the “A-HA” moment when I finally understood the fundamentals of programming and I owe it to his teaching methods. He gave the best analogies. I frequently use some of them to explain what I do to people who don’t understand programming.

A mentor at R&I?
Dr. Mike Duncan was my biggest influence at R&I. I remember many occasions when Mike would ask me, “Hey, do you know how to do this?” to which I would respond, “I have no idea, but give me 20 minutes and I’ll let you know.” The overwhelming support and trust Mike has given me has allowed me to become the software developer I am today and I will never forget that. He’s also a decent bass player, too. 😉

What advice would you impart on current research students or future alumni?
As programmers, we often repeatedly have to put up with failure and you might often be asked to make the seemingly impossible, possible. But, if there is a will, there is a way, so don’t throw in the towel early because your next error message is your next victory. If that fails, you could visit Ballmer’s Peak. 😊

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?
Not every company values the same things and as such, their work processes are different. Not all code follows all of the conventions we were taught. Not all code has meaningful comments that explain precisely what the function you are looking at is supposed to do, like we were taught. It’s unfortunate but that’s just the way it is. Code is art; you wouldn’t purposely draw a crappy picture, why would you purposely write garbage code?

Proudest achievement since graduating?
Currently working on what will be a revolutionary musician’s practicing application that adopts gamification to get users addicted to progress. Stay tuned…

What are your interests outside of work?
Music (I play guitar), badminton, table tennis.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?
If you see a new error message, you’re heading in the right direction.

Anything else you want to say?
Thanks to everyone at R&I for being very supportive to everyone who works there, it is an amazing place to work.



Innovation in Action

Through applied research activities, Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division is preparing the workforce with the right know–how by providing an array of researcher expertise, supported by leading-edge facilities, technology and equipment. See how graduates and R&I alumni are applying their skills and knowledge in the real world.