Smart sensor technology “de-risking” food animal transportation

The Team

Dr. Terry Fonstad, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Mitacs interns Derrick Nykoluk and Alejandro Recalde, and industry partner Transport Genie.

The Challenge

Assess whether trailers used for food animal transportation are pathogen-free after going through cleaning process.

The Solution

Advance smart sensor technology, enabling its use to assess biosecurity measures in transport trailers.

The Outcome

Sensors have been deployed to a global customer base to date, and Transport Genie expects to triple its customer base this year.

University of Saskatchewan researchers work with Ontario-based Transport Genie to improve smart sensors that monitor cleaning process of trailers used for transportation of swine

Collaboration with USask was key to commercializing technology that protects animal welfare and improves biosecurity in the transport industry

Innovation starts with asking the right questions.

For Transport Genie Ltd., a deceptively simple question vexing Canadian biosecurity experts sparked a collaboration that accelerated development of the company’s smart sensor technology and brought it to the cusp of commercial success.

Based in Aurora, Ont., the company is working with two Mitacs interns supervised by University of Saskatchewan’s Dr. Terry Fonstad to advance sensors that monitor animal welfare during transport.

Their collaboration began several years ago when Fonstad, at a meeting of Canadian food industry and biosecurity experts, grappled with the question, “How clean is clean?”

“We’re proud of Transport Genie’s contribution to the vital work being done by Dr. Fonstad’s team to improve biosecurity in Canada’s food supply chain. Plus, we’ve benefited enormously from being able to refine and improve our technology for protecting food animal welfare during transport by putting it to the test in real-world conditions,” said Joel Sotomayor, Transport Genie’s CEO.

How clean is clean?

It was 2017, and pork industry stakeholders were on alert for Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv). Harmless to humans, PEDv kills piglets at a terrifying rate, with nearly 100 percent mortality in suckling pigs. The disease had spread into Canada three years earlier from the United States, where it had already killed millions of animals.

Transport trailers carrying pigs across the Canada-U.S. border were the most likely vector, even though the industry had biosecurity measures that included washing and disinfecting trailers after each trip. The cleaning process is labour-intensive, expensive and messy — each vehicle takes several hours to wash and the process uses large amounts of water and harsh chemicals.

“A trailer looks clean after washing it, but pathogen-free is a whole other level of clean,” said Dr. Fonstad, who leads a pan-Canadian research team tasked with improving biosecurity in the food sector, especially with respect to transportation of swine.

Previous research by Dr. Fonstad and his collaborators had shown that baking (dry-heating) trailers to temperatures of 75C for 20 minutes would eliminate the PED virus and other pathogens of concern. The industry moved rapidly to adopt baking — also called Thermally Assisted Drying and Decontamination (TADD) — but there was insufficient data to develop clear disinfection protocols because there was no reliable way to verify that every nook and cranny of a trailer was being heated to the correct temperature. Until now.

Industry-university collaboration advances biosecurity

Dr. Fonstad had heard of Transport Genie’s sensors for monitoring factors such as air temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and ammonia levels, and driver behaviour. He connected with Sotomayor to start the partnership that would take the guesswork out of baking and track vehicle movements for enhanced biosecurity.

With help from Dr. Zsuzsa Papp, Mitacs Senior Advisor, the team put together a proposal that allowed them to tap into matching funds that have supported critical research and development to advance the sensor technology.

In particular, the funds supported work by graduate students Derrick Nykoluk and Alejandro Recalde. Nykoluk developed a failure mode testing process to evaluate the durability of the sensors when exposed to vibration, impact, heat, cold, disinfectants, and even animals gnawing on them. His MSc work wrapped up at the end of 2022. Meanwhile, Recalde’s PhD investigations of virus survival behind biofilms — slimy organic residues that stick to wet equipment — will continue until 2024.

Testing provided invaluable insights that informed design improvements needed to make Transport Genie’s made-in-Canada sensors commercially viable. The sensors have a robust, modular design so that each unit can be easily replaced, upcycled or refurbished to reduce electronic waste.

Sensors have been deployed globally, and the company expects to triple its customer base this year.

“Terry’s support has been invaluable to the company’s growth by helping us speed up development and adoption of Transport Genie technology,” said Sotomayor, adding Transport Genie’s major focus this year will be on sustainability initiatives to help transportation companies become carbon neutral.

“Mitacs was also helpful because, without this program and support, we wouldn’t be where we are today, on the cusp of exponential growth.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple 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, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to empower Canadian innovation.

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