SFU researchers help develop world’s first autonomous agriculture planning software

February 15, 2022
Credit: Verge Ag

Simon Fraser University researchers are playing an important role in developing the world’s first interactive, operational planning software for autonomous agriculture.

Announced today by Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, the project – led by Verge Ag, in collaboration with Terramera, i-Opentech, SFU and QuantoTech – will help farmers be more efficient, increase their output, lower their costs, and have a positive impact on the environment.

The project has a total investment of $10.8 million with nearly $6.5 million invested by industry and more than $4.4 million co-invested by the Digital Supercluster’s Technology Leadership Program.

The collaborators will create a digital twin of a users’ farm to support operational planning and decision-making. The platform will leverage new data sources to help farmers characterize their fields, crops, soil, and environmental factors and combine that with historical farm data to optimize planning, manage costs and maximize net returns.

SFU geography professors Bing Lu and Margaret Schmidt will participate in the project, developing methods of monitoring crop and soil health using remote sensing over the course of the next year at numerous test sites in Western Canada.

“This project demonstrates the pivotal role research universities play in Canadian industry, in our food security and in sustainability,” says Dugan O’Neil, SFU’s Vice-President, Research and International. “SFU is very excited to support the work of professors Lu and Schmidt. We are also grateful to the Digital Technology Supercluster for fostering these kinds of partnerships with leading industry players to help deliver value to Canadian food producers.”

Lu, an assistant professor leading SFU’s Remote Sensing of Environmental Change Lab (ReSEC), says using digital technologies can help farmers save time assessing the health of their crops and soils and can pinpoint specific areas that might need more attention.

“Using remote sensing, such as drone and satellite-based images, we can quickly map the entire farm,” he says. “And then by analyzing the images we can tell which areas of the farm are experiencing stressors. This allows farmers to monitor the crop and soil health of the farms so they know which specific areas to irrigate or fertilize rather than treating the entire farm, which will improve farming efficiency and profitability.”

Schmidt, an associate professor who leads the SFU Soil Science Lab, says digital monitoring can help farmers improve their yields and reduce their carbon footprint.

“Soil is an incredibly important resource and a lot of people don’t realize it,” she says. “Farmers do. It’s what’s growing their crops. Keeping that soil healthy is very important for food security and helps them feel good about benefitting the environment by using less fertilizer and pesticides.”

The project is also supported by the Province of British Columbia through the StrongerBC Agritech Grant program, which focuses on strengthening BC’s economic recovery, agriculture sector and food security by supporting food producers and agritech innovators. Other investment support to SFU is being provided by Mitacs.

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