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 culmination of 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).