Mechatronics in Motion: SFU Engineering Students Gear Up for Arusha Expedition

April 10, 2024

Armed with prototypes of a weed-removal robot and a drone-based crop-analyzing software, a group of 12 SFU mechatronic students, led by professor Woo Soo Kim, will soon embark on what promises to be a life-changing trip to Africa’s ecologically important Arusha Climate and Environmental Research Centre (ACER) in Tanzania.

The delegation, comprised of nine undergraduate students, two graduate students and professor Kim, will represent SFU’s  School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering in its inaugural field trip to the Arusha research centre, where they will field-test their newly developed innovations on more than 3,700 acres of rich, diverse, agricultural land.

A 2022 flagship initiative of Aga Khan University, ACER is an extraordinarily important ecological site used to advance global research in the field of environmental science and pursue sustainable agricultural development goals.

SFU and Aga Khan University (AKU) have shared a formal partnership since the two institutions signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2022, demonstrating their shared values and a commitment to collaboration in research and global initiatives.

The newly re-developed fourth-year undergraduate capstone project is a result of Kim’s visit to Tanzania with an SFU delegation including SFU President Joy Johnson and Vice-President, Research and International Dugan O’Neil in the fall of 2023, during which he visited local farms and spoke with community members to find out about their most difficult agricultural challenges.

Upon his return to Canada, he wondered how to successfully apply the principles of mechatronics systems engineering - which is the synergy between electrical engineering and mechanical engineering - to solve some of Tanzania’s agricultural problems, while also considering potential innovations in collaboration with BC companies.

“The important thing here is how can we make a real impact, giving an opportunity to African students to learn about cutting-edge agricultural technology, and how can we formulate collaboration between the Canadian students and the African students,” said Kim. “That's the opportunity here, and I hope our students will learn about the culture and socio-economic aspects of Africa at the same time.”

Kimia Rezaeian of the aptly named “Weed Warriors” team, which developed the weed management robot, says that automation and robotics have become increasingly important in agriculture to mitigate the impacts of climate change on crop yields.

“I am eager to show the local farmers what my team has worked on for the past couple of months, and work with them to draft and improve upon our ideas and designs,” she said.

Also recognizing the importance of and urgency for innovative agritech solutions, fourth-year student and member of “the drone team” Jeannifer Labelle says they will be collecting drone-captured images to analyze crop height using their algorithm, which would then empower farmers to better-optimize their harvest.

“Our team is dedicated to reducing barriers and improving access to these technologies in diverse landscapes,” she said. “Contributing to innovative solutions within the agricultural field is pivotal for a sustainable future, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to engage with Tanzanian communities.”

As both MSE professor and scientific director of B.C. Centre for Agritech Innovation (BCCAI), Kim couldn’t help but notice how BCCAI’s mission aligns very well with the research and development-based partnership between SFU and AKU-ACER, their mutual goals including investment in innovation, agricultural technology, and the training and upscaling of agricultural solutions.

But given that collaborative partnerships in mechatronics are generally known to be high-tech initiatives with highly developed countries in the U.S., Europe and Asia, curious colleagues have asked, “why Africa?”

“I'm recently more interested in the socio-economic value,” said Kim. “I'm more interested in the impact we can make. Each individual region has challenges, and perhaps [Tanzania’s] problems can be solved with our solutions. We can help each other and eventually global challenges like climate change or food security issues, and bigger objectives, can be achieved by engaging in these activities.”