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New federal funding to enrich USask digital agriculture research

Dr. Ian Stavness (PhD), Dr. Lingling Jin (PhD), and Dr. Leon Kochian (PhD). (Photos: University of Saskatchewan)

A University of Saskatchewan (USask) Computer Science and Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) team has been awarded $125,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF) to support the development of innovative greenhouse imaging and computing infrastructure.

Data-driven processes and decisions are increasingly important in the agriculture sector. Although large amounts of farm and plant data are being collected by growers and scientists, the ability to create actionable information from these large datasets remains a key challenge.

To fill this gap in the rapidly expanding digital agriculture sector, the USask team, led by Dr. Lingling Jin (PhD), assistant professor of computer science in the College of Arts and Science, and GIFS research leaders, Dr. Ian Stavness (PhD), Research Chair in Computational Agriculture, and Dr. Leon Kochian (PhD), Canada Excellence Research Chair in Global Food Security, will use the new funds to build the Green SkEye platform. This innovative infrastructure combines state-of-the-art computing and plant imaging hardware to analyze plant populations in greenhouses at an unprecedented level of detail.

“At USask our researchers are working hard with the future in mind, and that means developing technologies that can contribute to greater food security around the globe,” said Vice-President Research at USask, Baljit Singh. “We appreciate this investment, which allows us to help us attract and retain world-class expertise.”

The platform will build on the foundation and strengths of the GIFS-led Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC), including data science and bioinformatics. GIFS’ Plant Growth Facility will also provide greenhouse space and resources, as well as serve as a testing ground for the Green SkEye platform. GIFS will also provide additional funds for the development of this platform, with other funds and support flowing through the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Food Security, led by GIFS.

“The Green SkEye platform represents an innovative solution to a challenging problem in agriculture and that solution would not be possible without our strong agtech ecosystem,” said Dr. Steven Webb (PhD), GIFS chief executive officer. “We are excited to provide both matching funding and infrastructure for this collaborative project that contributes to our vision of a world where everyone has access to safe and nutritious food.”

Current plant imaging systems widely used for research and commercial purposes are large and expensive. The Green SkEye platform is a made-in-Saskatchewan plant imaging system that will be globally unique, capturing real-time colour and near-infrared images at a fraction of the cost of commercial solutions for imaging plants in specialized chambers or on robotic gantries. 

“The unique data generated by the Green SkEye system, in combination with existing field and genotyping data platforms, will provide a competitive advantage, helping attract and retain outstanding new researchers working on deep learning, data analytics, bioinformatics, genomics, and phenomics research,” said Jin. The transdisciplinary collaboration enabled by the project will advance our understanding of the interactions among the different elements of the agricultural system, ensuring Canada stays on the cutting edge when it comes to agricultural productivity and food security. 

“This new facility builds upon data science and bioinformatics foundations established in the CFREF-funded Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Center, led by GIFS,” said Stavness. “It will result in collaborations between GIFS, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Crop Development Centre, and a number of industry partners.”

Funding provided through JELF helps institutions attract and retain outstanding researchers by providing up to 40 per cent of the cost of academic research infrastructure, with remaining funds solicited from other public and private sources. 

Read the original release here.