BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND
BY CHRISTINA KAYE • PHOTO COURTESY OF OLDS COLLEGE
Each year, crop diseases diminish yields in Western Canada and around the globe. To address such perennial threats, Australian company BioScout created its signature product, an agricultural disease detection, spore identification and quantification system. Its purpose is to help farmers manage crop disease by identifying spores prior to the appearance of symptoms on the plants. BioScout has launched active pilot projects around the world to test the unit’s ability to detect diseases in crops such as fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, legumes and cereals.
In Canada, BioScout targets sclerotinia stem rot in canola. More effective detection of airborne sclerotinia spores will allow farmers to make earlier and better informed fungicide application decisions. Going into the second year of a two-year project, researchers at the Olds College Centre for Innovation (OCCI) are now testing the device in canola fields at the institution’s Smart Farm.
This ongoing project is an initiative of the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network. Olds College of Agriculture & Technology, Lakeland College and Discovery Farm Langham are testing the equipment and providing data to further develop the device for Canadian diseases and weather conditions. These Smart Farm Network members and BioScout will also work with the Global Agri-food Advancement Partnership and several farmers to assist the company to navigate the Canadian agriculture market.
In the field, the unit employs a sensor-regulated fan to draw air through itself. As the air moves through a narrow nozzle, fungal spores are sucked in and stick to a special transparent tape. With the help of its weathervane, the device faces into the wind to collect spores most effectively.
The unit’s imaging system uses an automated microscope to take hundreds of high-resolution images of the tape with its collected particles. These images are transmitted to a team of BioScout pathologists who identify the spores.
In 2023, OCCI researchers completed weekly scouting activities to independently observe disease presence. Plant-tissue samples were taken to determine whether spores were present within the two Smart Farm fields that contain BioScout units. BioScout delivers spore load data to farmers on a web-based platform. Scouting records as well as recommendations to improve the platform were compiled to conclude the first year of the project. The full BioScout dashboard displays a map of a farmer’s property, the location of the devices, all current pathogen warnings and weather information. The second year of the study will evaluate the effectiveness of the BioScout device within various crop types in fields across the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network.
The project will allow BioScout to expand its dataset for Canadian crop diseases and weather conditions. The company’s goal is to employ artificial intelligence to enable the unit to automatically detect disease in near real time.
This applied research project exemplifies how Olds College supports the development and testing of innovative agricultural products by working with companies across the world. Visit oldscollege.ca/smartfarm for updates on the BioScout project, the activities of the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network and the full range of Olds College research activities.
Christina Kaye is project lead for Smart Agriculture Applied Research at Olds College Centre for Innovation and project lead for the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network.