Satellites vs Soil Fungus

Lim Geomatics creates a new tool for AAFC that uses space technology to assess the risk of crop disease.
By: Doug Horner, Lim Geomatic Inc.

Stem rot, also known as white mould, is one of the most destructive diseases that can strike canola. The fungus, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, thrives in moist soil and infects plants as they bloom. If conditions are right, Sclerotinia can cause more than a 50 per cent loss in some crop yields. That’s no small potatoes considering the Canola Council of Canada estimates that this one crop contributes $26.7 billion to the national economy every year. Assessing the risk of crop diseases and applying the right preventative measures is critical to the success of Canada’s agricultural industry.

Heather McNairn, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), studies how to enlist satellites in the service of healthier crops and more productive farms. “The last part of my career has really been dedicated to looking at how we can use radar satellites, especially the Canadian radar SAR satellites, to provide information on the condition of soils and crops.” McNairn is leading a three-year research project into how satellite data can improve the ways Canada’s agricultural sector monitors, assesses and mitigates the risk of crop disease.

McNairn pulled together a diverse team that includes researchers from Environment and Climate Change Canada and scientists from the University of Alberta and University of Waterloo. Lim Geomatics was recruited to translate the high-level science into a user-friendly web application. The AAFC-led project is now in year two, and Lim Geomatics recently delivered a functional pilot application that assesses the risk of Sclerotinia in canola crops grown in southern Manitoba.

“It was a huge hit,” says McNairn, describing her team’s response to Lim Geomatics’ presentation of the Disease Risk Tool (DiRT) this past April. “They did an excellent job—all the functionality was there.” The new tool integrates information about soil moisture, crop canopy development, weather and field management factors into a web application that is easy to navigate.

“Any project, especially when you’re dealing with these types of projects where there is a research element, there is a lot of complexity,” says Kevin Lim, founder and chief technology officer at Lim Geomatics. “There is science behind the scenes and the end user may not need to know the inner workings of what the scientists have done.” What’s essential, explains Lim, is the capacity for users to ask the system a question and get an answer without getting bogged down in the details. “We are solving a real problem,” Lim says. “Often you have great science that is done but then the knowledge transfer or the technology transfer of that science somehow doesn’t get executed.”

Xiaoyuan Geng, a soil scientist with AAFC who is also part of the project, says the DiRT web application is a great example of a successful partnership between public science and industry ingenuity. “I’m excited to work with companies like Lim Geomatics,” he says. “When you develop and build something, the objective is to make it useful. Without a broader collaboration, quite often you build something but people don’t use it.” Geng adds that DiRT has immense potential for the agricultural industry. “In Canada, we have not seen many operational assessment tools so this is going to be a leading edge solution.”

The first stage of the project focused on the risk of Sclerotinia in canola in southern Manitoba, but the goal is to scale it up for more crops and more diseases across Canada. “The tool that Lim has put together could be adapted to other diseases,” McNairn says. “This is just the first.”

McNairn’s long-term goal for DiRT includes web and mobile applications that feature real-time updates, alerts for high disease risk that prompt investigation on foot or by drone and then effective deployment of mitigation measures. “That’s the vision,” McNairn says. “We have a long way to go yet for something like that.”

DiRT could also prove useful as a source of new data for crop scientists who study the behaviour of diseases. Today, these scientists collect data on a handful of fields and then extrapolate their findings. With a fully operational DiRT application, researchers would have data on every field in their region. “In our department, we’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse of the whole country,” McNairn says. “It’s hard to do that without a tool like this.”

This collaboration between government and industry is broadening the horizons of Canada’s agricultural industry. The pilot application developed by Lim Geomatics for Sclerotinia is the first step towards empowering producers and agronomists with powerful geospatial technology to reduce the impact of crop disease.

Founded in 2006, Lim Geomatics is an industry-leading GIS software development company. With offices in Calgary and Ottawa, Canada, we specialize in building web and mobile applications powered by the ArcGIS mapping platform.

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