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An undergraduate from northern India is working with a Moncton-based lab to design a unique drone for weed management
Border closures and international travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t stopping some of the world’s top talent from collaborating with Canadian researchers this summer. Relying on video calls and other advanced technology tools, Hina Tomar, an undergraduate student at Aligarh Muslim University’s Zakir Husain College of Engineering and Technology, in India, is one of over 1,000 students from 12 countries working remotely on leading-edge research with universities in Canada during the summer of 2021.
Tomar is collaborating with Dr. Habib Hamam, a Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Université de Moncton. Applying expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) programming, the student is working to get to the root of a problem facing all Canadian farmers: how to effectively manage weeds in a way that limits environmental pollution and maximizes crop yields.
As Dr. Hamam explains, researchers are already using drones for weed identification, but current techniques are limited. Most rely on image processing only, an approach that is efficient in identifying weeds solely if they are present in large, dense patches. This means individual — yet invasive — weeds will be missed.
By applying deep learning technology alongside image processing, Tomar is developing software that will be intelligent enough to help a drone spot even the smallest of weeds in a field, in a much quicker time span.
“The software functions as the brain of the drone, so adding the AI component is an important first step in advancing this next wave in farming technology,” says Dr. Hamam, explaining that Tomar is in the process of accessing databases containing thousands of images of weeds in order to train the system to accurately identify different varieties and sizes.
The goal is to use a drone to take pictures of crops in a field and send those images to a base station for processing. The AI-based software developed by Tomar will then distinguish between vegetation and weeds — a process that includes filtering dirt, shadows, and other impurities out of the images first.
When all weeds are accurately identified, their specific location information will be sent back to the drone so that it can apply herbicide only where it’s needed, lessening the environmental impact, and maximizing crop yields. At the same time, farmers can be assured that no weeds were missed.
Tomar expects the image analysis portion of the project to be completed in a matter of weeks and anticipates having a software prototype ready for testing by the end of her internship in August. Once the hardware portion of the drone is finalized, the university team will begin testing it at local Moncton farms.
Tomar is one of 1,075 students — from Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States — who are taking part in the Mitacs Globalink program during summer 2021 to help solve complex problems across a range of industry sectors, from healthcare and wellness, to robotics, technology, and the environment.
Designed to foster international research links and boost Canada’s economy, the 12-to-14-week internship normally entails travel to work alongside Canadian researchers, but this summer’s program is happening remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though she regrets missing the opportunity to visit Canada in person, Tomar connects with Dr. Hamam regularly through Google Meets, where they share computer screens as he guides her work on her software model.
“The Globalink program is an excellent way to connect with leading-edge research teams from all over the world,” says Tomar, who first learned about the program from others at her school who previously had Mitacs internships. Not only is the opportunity opening the door to new research possibilities, but because of the experience, she has already decided to pursue her master’s degree in Canada starting in 2023.
For Dr. Hamam, the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship is a chance to tap into the leading-edge programming expertise he needs to advance his research, and to further his goal of building an equitable, diverse, and inclusive lab environment.
“Globalink is a golden opportunity to access very specific, highly sought-after research skills,” he says. “These students are the cream of the cream, and they bring a unique perspective to solving the challenges we face.”
Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.
We are also grateful to our international partners. In 2021–2022, Mitacs is pleased to work with partners in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States to support Globalink (see full list of partners of the Globalink Research Internship and the Globalink Research Award).
Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: BD@mitacs.ca.