Breakthrough tech: What’s next?

Four innovative technologies that can improve the future of agriculture.

By Kristen Lutz

“Without innovation, we would probably still be using ox and plows – and even that was an innovation,” says Adrian Rivard, president and operations manager of Drone Spray Canada.

For years, new farming technologies have focused on improving yield, enhancing profitability, solving labour shortages and reducing environmental impact. Technological advancements are constantly being introduced and producers work hard to stay on the cusp of technology to tackle these challenges.

Indeed, Prairie producers have become accustomed to innovation and investing in innovative technology.

The first automated milking parlour installed in Canada was in March 1999. Since then, technology has paved the way for the reading of RFID tags, laser precision teat location, immediate milk quality analysis and cow health determinants.

It’s yesterday’s news, but an illustration of how technology can improve standard practices.

In this issue we offer a look at four examples of new tech which could change the way we farm.

Eco-friendly elemental sulphur

Modern food production relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers to reach global food demands. However, components of these fertilizers do nothing to contribute to agricultural sustainability.

Enter Sultech Global Innovation Corp., which promises ideal crop performance while addressing climate change.

Located in Calgary and Crossfield, Alta. Sultech researches and improves traditional sulphur components in fertilizer.

Recently, they’ve launched SulGro, a new eco-friendly, micronized elemental sulphur, which acts as a replacement for ammonium sulphates found in synthetic fertilizers.

“We did (lots) of research with Dr. Eric Bremer at Western Ag Innovations on local sites between northern and southern Alberta,” says Murray MacKinnon, founder and director at Sultech. “His company does root simulator probes and they had enough data that showed this is an elemental sulphur product that works in the year of application.

“There is a bit of a stigma around elemental sulphur, that it doesn’t work in the year of application. It isn’t looked at as a replacement for synthetic sulphate fertilizer,” he continues. This delay in effects is what often reduces interest from producers in elemental sulphur-based products.

Since their initial research, SulGro’s unique technology has been published in a peer-reviewed paper with the Canadian Journal of Soil Science. MacKinnon explains the journal states “that this is an elemental sulphur product that will deliver sulphate in a timely manner for soil and plants.”

“We spent a number of years replicating this product and then commercializing it. When it was first developed, we didn’t realize the particle size and the distribution would pass the performance of ammonium sulphate, a synthetic sulphur source. It wasn’t until we started doing agronomy studies that we actually realized if we could make this small enough, we can make it perform the same as synthetic fertilizers,” he explains.

SulGro’s extremely small size is what gives it an advantage. The mean particle size is less than 30 microns, which in turn increases its oxidation percentage to 90 per cent in one year. Compared to traditional elemental sulphur products, which oxidize at 15 to 20 per cent within a year, the high oxidation rate of SulGro is the key aspect behind its outstanding performance.

Traditional Farm Equipment spraying field
    SulGro can be used with any traditional spray equipment, says Murray MacKinnon. This includes a high-clearance, tow-behind, or boomless. - Cody Gregory photo

“Having a higher percentage of oxidation is because of increased surface area,” explains MacK-innon. This increase is due to the small particle size. “Increased surface area is what allows the bacteria in the soil to convert the elemental sulphur into sulphate, which can be (taken up) by plants.”

SulGro is also outperforming ammonium sulphate in extreme conditions, such as drought.

“We had a really bad drought (in Alberta) last year and we found that we didn’t have that osmotic pressure when seeding into (low moisture soil). Since the fertilizer will absorb moisture quicker than the seed needs, it’s stealing that moisture from the plant,” explains MacKinnon.

“Last year in the drought conditions we massively outperformed ammonium sulphate. By removing ammonium sulphate, you’re drastically reducing the osmotic pressure on the seed.”

SulGro uses elemental sulphur collected from the Canadian oil and gas industry. This bioproduct is often sold at a loss to producers as a bulk commodity. By taking the elemental sulphur, Sultech is creating a value-added product from a major Canadian industry and giving it back to Canadian farmers as an environmentally-friendly alternative to synthetics.

MacKinnon explains that he has worked with oil and gas industries in the past and clearly saw a need for this product.

This technology was first discovered nearly 20 years but sulphur wasn’t needed in soil like it is now. As we’re slowly cleaning up the planet, sulphur concentrations in rain are being reduced, which means there’s less sulphur in the soil.

MacKinnon has worked closely with scientists to “get this product on the table and then commercialize it.”

With fertilizer prices on the rise, Sultech is proud to say their product can save “$6,500 a section while putting 20 to 25 pounds of product on crops such as canola.”

The savings are linked to reduced application due to the high oxidation percentage, as well as a lower cost in the product itself.

Grain bin technologies

Gone are the days when spoilage was determined by a sniff test.

Although this traditional method is tried and true, new grain bin sensors and advanced technology promise a more accurate and efficient method for diagnosing spoilage.

“About 10 years ago, nine out of 10 bins would’ve had nothing to monitor and manage their grain,” says Kent Wingert, production manager at OPIsystems.

“When the producer goes to sell that grain, we want to make sure it’s in the best condition possible. And grain bin technology is now allowing growers to maximize the returns in unprecedented conditions.”

Traditionally, stored grain would be monitored through a temperature probe. However, this reads the temperature of only one area within the grain bin. “These older techniques don’t mitigate the risks and you’ll see a higher spoilage – a lot of that risk technology can take away,” says Wingert.

Sensors are now being installed to help mitigate the effects of spoilage and ultimately diminish it completely.

“These sensors measure temperature, relative humidity and have the ability to give the calculated moisture value of the grain. This type of information is really important to the grain manager, and it gives them visibility into the grain bin which they wouldn’t have prior,” he says.

With moisture and humidity sensors, producers can precisely monitor their entire grain bin in a matter of seconds.

In 2014, OPIsystems launched OPI Blue. This product uses the sensors within the grain bin but takes it one step further by providing a cloud-based system. This allows the producer to access their grain bin information remotely, provided they have access to an internet connection.

“It’s a system with simple pieces of hardware. There is a gateway that is the brains of the operation and in each bin, there is a cable node. This cable node reads the moisture and temperature in the bin. On an hourly basis, these nodes send that data to the gateway, and then the gateway sends this data through a cellular connection, or internet connection, into the cloud so the user can view that on their device.”

OPI Blue can be expanded even further to include a monitoring aspect.

“We have monitored fan and heating control,” says Wingert. “Rather than just monitoring and making decisions, this allows the system to target the (moisture and humidity) based on customer decisions on a bin-by-bin basis. Growers set the inputs and the system uses algorithms in place and weather data to make decisions when conditions are right to turn the fans on and reach those targets set out by the grower. Or if the conditions aren’t right (the system) makes decisions to turn the fans off. We want to make sure we are running the fans only when it’s conducive to do so.”

OPIsystems recently launched Blue Seed, a web-based grain management tool, designed for newer users of technology to assist them with grain management decisions.

“It tries to eliminate or take down some of the tech barriers within our OPI Blue system and there is no hardware investment from the grower. There are some conditioning tools on our website in which show virtual weather and we can bring these into the system,” says Wingert. This product is perfect for growers who “just want to dip their toe in and use products to help make their grain management decisions and this platform allows them to do this before they adopt the full OPI software.”

Research is now being done to incorporate electromagnetic imaging into grain storage. Much like sensors, this would allow the grower to remotely monitor their grain. An antenna would be mounted to the internal side of the grain bin and produce electromagnetic waves. Transmitters and receivers would receive data from electromagnetic radiation. An image can then be created through a reconstruction algorithm. These images would show the qualitative and quantitative properties of the grain, allowing producers to identify and locate the spoilage. However, this technology is still in its infancy and has yet to be commercialized. A number of companies are developing products that involve electromagnetic imaging.

Drones & UAVs

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are more common with every passing season.

“In less than 15 minutes, advanced drones can survey a 160-acre field to identify variations in plant soil and health, giving growers direct access to real-time aerial views, reports and data to help make informed agronomic decisions,” says Chris Olbach, an agronomist with Pioneer Seeds. “This enables growers to catch and correct issues faster than ever before to protect against yield loss.”

People flying drone over crops
    CortevaAgriScience photo

“We specialize in drone aerial application, which is a huge technology to come out. We work on a lot of things, whether that be crop imaging, scouting, and of course, the application side is our bread and butter,” says Rivard.

“There are still some regulatory hurdles in Canada that involve spraying pesticides, but there are a lot of things we can work on in the meantime.”

Drone imaging can be used to determine damage on crops caused by weather or other forms of yield loss. This allows the producer to take corrective measures and prevent further loss. The drones produce a field map or image of the quality of the crop and can outline areas that need improvement.

“Drones and satellite imagery just give them a different perspective of what’s going on in their fields; it allows them to get higher quality information faster and to be more effective with where they spend their time,” says Olbach.

Labour shortages are widespread across our industry, and drones could be part of that solution.

“A manager can see the whole picture without even leaving the office and they can maximize what they are looking at. We can upload the pictures into a digital scouting platform, and you can drop pins on the problematic areas in the field, instead of going out and wandering in the cornfield looking for problems,” says Rivard.

Drone Truck home base
    Drone Spray Canada’s ‘drone truck’ is used as a home base for data acquisition. - Drone Spray Canada photo

“It saves a producer money in a few ways. By capturing real-time data, it helps to provide insight to address any in-field, yield-robbing pests. It also reduces the fuel inputs required to drive around a field to scout manually,” explains Olbach.

As it’s continually evolving, approval is still needed from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Canada for pilots to spray pesticides on farmers’ fields.

Rivard: “There’s still a lot of research that has to be done. We get a lot of inquiries from farmers who want to spray pesticides, but we can’t just yet. Everybody is excited about technology and we all see tons of applications for it; we just have to sit on the sidelines until we get that approval.”

UAVs & AI for livestock monitoring

Drones fitted with artificial intelligence (AI) are still in the early stage of development.

Some restrictions surround the current capabilities of technology, and the autonomous aspects are still yet to be commercialized.

“When looking for ways to apply advanced digital technologies to farm and animal welfare, I discovered the emerging field of precision livestock monitoring, often called “smart farming” for short,” says Dr. Stacey Scott, a professor with the School of Computer Science at the University of Guelph.

“A subsection of this field is looking at ways to monitor livestock in outdoor habitats using computer vision-based approaches that analyze images or videos of livestock captured by stationary cameras or drones.

“We’re currently conducting a systematic literature review that is synthesizing research from across many disciplines, including agriculture, computer science, engineering, and even wildlife studies, to understand what is currently possible, and what the challenges and opportunities are for this type of animal monitoring in the farming context,” she continues.

Monitoring livestock in pasture is a consistent issue within several sectors. This often requires producers to physically inspect their herds or re-watch hours of recorded video when using a traditional surveillance camera. Current capabilities would allow producers to use drones to watch livestock in a real-time video stream to ensure their safety. Drones can use AI to follow the herd day or night.

“These UAVs can have a lot of AI built into their navigation systems to be semi-autonomous. For instance, they can follow a pre-planned, GPS-based flight path to collect the imaging data, so they don’t need a human to remotely pilot the aircraft.

Drone spraying field
    Drone Spray Canada photo

“Some experimental and commercial drones have built-in tracking capabilities based on advanced computer vision algorithms. (These) can detect objects, especially moving objects – for instance, a human or animal – and can automatically follow those objects while collecting images or video.”

Besides following the herd to ensure animal safety, research is being conducted in which AI would be able to learn each animal and report its location.

“We see machine learning and deep learning algorithms being applied to improve animal recognition, counting, identification, or other image processing tasks. Traditional computer vision approaches, which tend to analyze images and videos based on differences in colour, shape, movement, or other identifiable features to help the computer ‘understand’ the image, are extremely challenging to use in the outdoor livestock context,” Scott explains.

This is particularly challenging as AI struggles to differentiate the subject of an image when placed in front of a busy background such as a forested paddock. Additionally, with producers growing herds of the same species and breed, AI can find it difficult to individualize animals if they have no defining features, such as individual and unique colourings.

According to Scott, researchers in this area have been working to use AI models that have been programmed to have a general recognition of the world based on pre-training with massive datasets containing millions of images of everyday items under different lighting, orientations and other conditions.

“A key feature of these datasets is that the available images and videos are already labelled. For instance, an image may be labelled at the image or even pixel-level that it contains a ‘face’ or ‘dog’ or ‘cat’. These labels are used to help the AI learn what these everyday items look like in different image contexts.

These massive datasets simply don’t exist yet in the livestock farming context. Due to the lack of these datasets, each researcher working in this area must first collect their own data and label it. Both activities are time-consuming and costly.”

Although individual identification of animals is not yet a feasible technology, Scott believes AI and UAV use for herd tracking or herd monitoring is a practical solution that could soon be commercialized.

“Regular automated herd inventory checks could be possible, or even using the technology with the existing vision-based algorithms to locate and track a herd, for instance, if they’re housed on a large open range,” she says.

However, there are limitations with current technologies available.

“Commercial drones currently have very limited operating time due to battery limitations. At a reasonable altitude, they could cover quite a distance at a time, but the higher they fly, the less reliable their vision-based detection algorithms will be. Current drone technology could not operate for 24/7 surveillance without using multiple drones,” says Scott.

With the global population estimated to increase to 10 billion by 2050, the push to incorporate innovation in ag is becoming more essential to feed the rise in population. BF

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