Virtual crop scout wins hackathon

The device, which monitors crops while uploading digital imagery, wins a competition that focused on emerging technologyy

The device, which monitors crops while uploading digital imagery, wins a competition that focused on emerging technologyy

A camera on a stick, able to capture time lapse imagery while crops grow, could be available for producers someday soon.

CropShot is the name of an inventive tool put forth by one of four teams participating in a recent hackathon, a group meeting and competition to rapidly develop technology ideas. This hackathon was focused on emerging agriculture technologies and was held at Co-Labs in Saskatoon Jan. 12-13.

The idea garnered the CropShot team of Ben Lewis, Erik Tetland and Kulani Zwane first place and a prize of $500.

It’s a virtual crop scout that is always monitoring crops while uploading digital imagery. The automated photography device could also be useful for comparing the visual effects of crop inputs such as foliar fertilizers and fungicides during different stages of plant growth.

“It’s meant to be used in addition with other tools such as a drone, where you can see the bigger picture of the entire field,” Zwane said.

“But at the ground level this is what our solution would be providing. This can definitely add to other sets of information used to make decisions.”

Four teams participated in this year’s hackathon, which is designed to foster innovation and collaboration with the goal of expanding software and hardware development.

This year’s crop of student hackers represented the areas of computer science, engineering, agriculture and commerce.

Students combine their varied educational disciplines to identify a current challenge in agriculture and then map out their idea and a viable technical solution.

Participants have six hours to launch a design before presenting it to a panel of four judges who represented industry, education and food groups.

Throughout the day, a group of top-tier mentors were available to collaborate and assist with questions about agriculture and product development.

“I’m walking around and they throw ideas at me and I answer question(s) about operations and things that are going on in farming and what problems exist,” said Jared Nelson, who grows grain near Weyburn, Sask.

“Students ask what the value might be and where I think the market might be. We talked about things like research farms, individual producers and the value that could be added.”

Corey Wellness of CropPro Consulting, one of the competition judges, said hackathons are valuable experiences because participants are quickly challenged to overcome their fear of failure in an industry that many know little to nothing about.

“It takes a lot of guts to come up with something new and then in six hours be presenting it,” he said.

“My thought is they’re all stars because there are thousands of other students that didn’t lay it on the line to risk looking like a fool because it’s a big challenge.”

All four teams said the experience of brainstorming under a tight deadline, while being mentored by industry specialists and then judged on the outcome, was an invaluable opportunity on several levels.

“When engineering and computer science students graduate they know how to build technologies, but they don’t know what to build, so any opportunity for understanding an industry from the experts themselves in a situation where you can experiment, throw ideas around and get the most out of the experts that have real problems — you can know what technologies to build.”

Added Zwane: “I came to expose myself to agriculture and ag tech and see what some of the industry is about.

“One of the things I got out of it was how to approach farmers with new technology. There was an emphasis on not lecturing farmers but on how to approach farmers with technology solutions, which is very important, and it seemed to me a rather delicate game.”

Second place was awarded to Dallon Leger and Brooke Switzer of EcoGenX Agriculture Recycling, who are already picking up used grain bags from farmers with a plan to salvage the plastics.

They proposed a mobile app for clients to input all their information. A pick-up location is determined, a route generated and the removal executed.

Immediate correspondence via the app simplifies business interaction for the company and clients, which will increase the number of used grain bags removed from farms.

“Hackathon helped us greatly because I never considered us tech,” Leger said.

“We just picked up waste, but talking with these people we realized we have the ability to become a tech company by introducing apps and simplifying things. It was something that we never thought outside the box in that way.”

Leger said burning grain bags is now illegal in Saskatchewan with fines up to $1 million depending on the severity of each case.

“What we’re working on is setting up a facility that’s going to recycle this plastic in Saskatchewan and alleviating the need to export it overseas, which will make us more accountable for the waste that we create here.”

Third place went to InterSeed, a mobile app for farmers to input their soil information such as pH, moisture, and topography so that they can determine the best varieties to intercrop.

The team of Mayra Samaniego and Zayda Morales said their idea was inspired during the Crop Production Show earlier this month, where farmers were encouraged to try intercropping.

Farms2Forks placed fourth, which uses social media to quickly bring food packages directly to the consumer with an emphasis on a customized shopping list and traceability.

David Lutzer and Uchi Uchibeke said that by registering on their website, buyers can specify what food they need. Farms2Forks will then put them in contact with a producer who will deliver.

As one of the judges, Steve Shirtliffe of the University of Saskatchewan’s agriculture college said the hackathon process quickly encourages creativity while empowering people and providing opportunity in a positive way.

“We’re fostering a dynamic environment, community and economy by doing this. It’s a brilliant thing,” he said

Clinton Monchuck, executive director of Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan, who also judged, said that although most students did not have an agricultural background, they are now looking for innovative solutions to improve the industry.

“Now there are 12 young adults that are interested in agriculture and want to be in the agriculture field,” he said.

“To me that’s excellent. That was worth its weight right there.”

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