Niagara College researcher envisions Canada’s Farm of the Future

Mike Duncan, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) industrial research chair in Precision Agriculture and Environmental Technologies at NC, demonstrates a drone as part of developments to help mitigate the effects of oncoming weather threats.

Mike Duncan, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) industrial research chair in Precision Agriculture and Environmental Technologies at NC, demonstrates a drone as part of developments to help mitigate the effects of oncoming weather threats.

Niagara College’s Research & Innovation (NC) division this week offered a glimpse into what automation and wireless sensor technology can contribute to the farm of the future.

Led by Mike Duncan, PhD, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) industrial research chair in Precision Agriculture and Environmental Technologies at NC, the team of researchers, students and recent graduates demonstrated developments they have made in helping mitigate the effects of oncoming weather threats.

The demonstration included two remote-controlled rovers and an aerial drone simultaneously at work in the college’s vineyard on the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus.

“We are putting technology to work on the farm, with scalable big-data solutions that will provide value and a clear return on investment. These solutions and technologies will help to support today’s larger modern farms,” noted Duncan during the demonstration.

This latest development in the research was made possible by a $135,710 contribution from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, for equipment for Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environment Innovation Centre, through the Applied Research Tools and Instruments Grants.

The NC grant will be used to build and install six micrometeorological/weather measurement stations in fields, orchards and vineyards in southern Ontario. The wireless sensor technology will collect data to be used in analytics for precision agriculture, particularly in developing and programing algorithms that will identify oncoming weather threats.

Each station has been constructed to measure values specific to the individual farm operations. For example, the station in the soy bean field will be a base station accompanied by a remote-controlled rover that travels around the field sampling the heat and humidity of the crop, since soybeans are most sensitive to moulds.

“The overall objective is to find the types of technologies that will comprise the tools needed on the family farm 30 years in the future,” said Duncan. “What will the future farm look like? How much automation versus manpower will be present? Will the manpower be in the form of a tele-presence? Each of these likelihoods has its roots in what we can build today.”

In an era of larger farms, and reduced farm labour, it is essential to make farm work more efficient with scalable technologies. Now in his fifth year as the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges, Duncan and his team have developed several scalable digital tools for farm businesses. This is done by storing, analyzing, interpreting, and visualizing agricultural data. The data sources include farming partners, and in-house developed sensor tools and prototypes.

Duncan’s team develops algorithms to support farmers, consultants, Certified Crop Advisors, retailers, agricultural suppliers (seed, fertilizer, and other field inputs), and more.

For example, the current IRCC work has involved developing the crop portal (web tool) to process agricultural yield, soil, elevation data, and more. This is part of a collaborative project for Grain Farmers of Ontario, who have more than 28,000 members in Ontario. The portal is a powerful decision system that supports the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, grain farmers, and consultants. It enables data to be cleaned, processed, and turned into valuable management zones for variable rate farming in a time efficient manner.

The next era of Duncan’s work will assess and address the barriers to remotely operated farming.

The idea is to both examine, and define the future technologies that will drive a remotely operated farm operation, said Duncan. This will enable the modern farmer to profitably make all the food our rapidly growing world population will need. For project partners, this will create intellectual property to refine current products and services, and develop new products and services.

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