Niagara College Research Chair receives five-year renewal

Dr. Mike Duncan, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (IRCC) in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies. 

Agriculture is reaping the benefits of big data

With a rising global population, there is a need to produce more food, more efficiently. What will the future farm look like? How much automation versus manpower will be present? How will farmers utilize new technology?

These are just some of the questions that Niagara College’s (NC) Mike Duncan will continue to answer for the next five years, thanks to a $1 million grant, from the federal government. The announcement was made today in Ottawa by Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, as part of $37.4 million in new funding for projects at colleges, institutes and CÉGEPs across Canada to support applied research and development activities with industry partners.

The NC grant is a renewal from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), for the Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (IRCC) in Precision Agriculture & Environmental Technologies. Duncan, who has a PhD in Agricultural Physics, was awarded the first college-level Industrial Research Chair five years ago, through NSERC’s College and Community Innovation Program.

Duncan is recognized as a world leader in precision agriculture, which involves the analysis and processing of big data to give growers the tools to farm smarter. He is the principal researcher for precision agriculture work in the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre at NC.

The funding will allow Duncan and his team – comprised of computer programming and GIS students, researchers and recent graduates – to continue developing tools to support and leverage technologies for the modern Canadian farm business to prosper.

“The last five years have been assembling the data and the tools to learn as much as we can about precision ag, and, in doing so, carving out a niche in Canada,” said Duncan.

Included in this work is an expansion of NC’s Research Crop Portal and more research into wireless technology farming.

“We’re very excited to have this five-year mandate from NSERC to enable Mike and his team to broaden and formalize the work begun several years ago,” said Marc Nantel, NC’s associate vice-president, Research & Innovation.

Duncan is the architect and leader of the Research Crop Portal, an interactive web-tool for farmers and consultants to access precision agriculture technologies. The data sources include farming partners, and sensor tools and prototypes developed in-house. Expanding the crop portal will allow farmers and scientists alike not only more flexibility to visualize and verify their data, but to also have the capability to set and control their own algorithms.

In addition to collecting and incorporating the layers of data that track how much a crop can and does produce on an annual basis, Duncan’s team will add ‘timing’ into the equation. “The timing of rain, heat, humidity or bug swarms, for example, will be very important to the final result. We should be set to isolate the most effective factors influencing the growth of crops.”

Duncan’s ongoing work will also continue to assess and address the barriers to remotely operated farming. This has been started thanks to NSERC grant money last September for the College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre to build and install six micrometeorological/weather measurement stations in fields, orchards and vineyards in southern Ontario.

The weather stations in the field, combined with remote sensors both on the ground and in the air, provide real-time measurements that will assist in the team’s development of tools to identify oncoming weather threats. With early warnings, growers can hopefully mitigate damage from frost or crop disease, for example.

“Wireless sensory technology and automation is definitely shaping the way farmers now tend to their crops,” explained Duncan. Data gathering with robotics to provide a precise and real-time picture of weather conditions and soil patterns, offers farmers state-of-the-art tools to make the best management decisions for their fields and farm practices, he added.

“Our Government supports investments that are helping to build an innovative economy and create quality jobs to support a vibrant middle class,” Minister Duncan noted during the announcement. “Fostering strong partnerships between Canada’s colleges and industry partners leads to new, innovative ideas and transforms the results of R&D into new products that will benefit all Canadians.”

Currently celebrating its 50th year as a College of Applied Arts and Technology, NC is a leader in applied education and a key contributor to the economies of Niagara and Ontario. A regional college with global reach, NC offers more than 100 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs.

NSERC invests more than $1 billion each year in natural sciences and engineering research in Canada. Such investments deliver discoveries – valuable world-firsts in knowledge claimed by a brain trust of over 11,000 professors. Researcher-industry partnerships established by NSERC help inform R&D, solve scale-up challenges, and reduce the risks of developing high-potential technology. The federal agency also provides scholarships and hands-on training experience for more than 30,000 post-secondary students and post-doctoral fellows.

NC’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre 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.

NC’s student researchers

  • The data collection and analysis tools, developed into scalable interfaces that support farmers and consultants, have been created by a team of computer programmers, from NC’s School of Technology, as well as graduates with environmental and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) expertise, from NC’s School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies.
  • Duncan’s students start with a grounding in real-time data processing. Computer programming, self-organizing systems, open source technologies, mobile applications, database development, and user interfaces, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), environment, and sustainability, are all part of their education and training with the Centre.

Mike Duncan

  • Duncan is recognized as a world leader in variable-rate technology and has worked with the College in commercializing research in and developing commercial-ready prototypes for precision agriculture and environmental remote sensing.
  • Previous to his first Chair appointment in 2012, Duncan held the Niagara College Chair of Visualization Sciences since 2001, and was the principal researcher for the College’s Augmented Reality Research Centre. Dr. Duncan is an Agricultural Physics graduate from McGill University (BSc 1987, MSc 1990, PhD 1994) and completed postdoc work in Utah and Québec, pursuing research in non-linear variability in geophysical fields and high atmospheric remote sensing research.

See videos of Mike Duncan’s work with NC Research & Innovation:

Agricultural & Environment Innovation Centre develops interactive web tool for farmers

PrAgMatic: From Yield Maps to Prescription Maps

Yield Probability Index (YPI) and Yield Probability Zones

Seeing Double Green: Dr. Mike Duncan at TEDxNiagaracollege