Drones, AI being used in climate change research at new centre on P.E.I.

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
Drones, AI being used in climate change research at new centre on P.E.I.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

UPEI is getting ready to welcome its first group of students at the new Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation, which is already engaged in studies to combat the consequences of climate change.

Aitazaz Farooque, associate dean of the UPEI School of Climate Change and Adaptation, says the centre based in St. Peters Bay encourages an integrated approach to climate solutions, and houses labs and classrooms designed to foster collaboration.

Farooque says the centre on the shores of St. Peters Bay has been instrumental in setting up experiments all over Prince Edward Island, taking advantage of its coastal location and the many farms that surround it.

P.E.I. is vulnerable to coastal erosion, so the centre — abbreviated as CCCCA — has set up points on the coast to periodically measure how much soil and shore are being lost.

"We have about over 150 points established on the coast across P.E.I.," Farooque told CBC News during a tour of the new facility.

These points are measured manually and are linked with drone mapping information to calculate coastal erosion. Eventually, the centre should be able to come up with proposals for best practices to prevent erosion.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Drones and cover crops

The other type of erosion occurs farther in from the coast, as topsoil is blown or flooded away. Plants grown in such fields won't thrive because they don't get adequate nutrients and water.

Some research being done at the centre uses drones to conduct thermal energy mapping to detect that kind of soil erosion. The research teams might then advise farmers to plant cover crops on those areas and leave them for a few years to allow the organic matter to grow until the soil is once more "strong enough to be profitable," in Farooque's words.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

He also said drones are being used in climate modelling to predict and forecast "how the climate is going to behave over the next 20 years."

If sea levels rise on a global basis as the world's scientists have predicted, Farooque said the centre aims to find out "what's going to happen to this island?"

Monitoring emissions across P.E.I.

Farooque said as greenhouse gas emissions increase, temperatures and sea levels also rise. So the centre has installed 100 greenhouse gas chambers across P.E.I. to measure greenhouse emissions in each specific location.

Submitted by Aitazaz Farooque
Submitted by Aitazaz Farooque

"We are monitoring those emissions in the morning, then in the afternoon, just to see how they relate with the temperature, and then whether they go high or low as the temperature goes high.

"The idea is to model those emissions on P.E.I., once we have enough data, to see how we are doing with the emissions from the agriculture sector."

Different solutions might be proposed for certain areas of the Island depending on the emissions measured.

For example, one type of carbon sequestration strategy is burning organic waste from agriculture and forestry processes to store carbon in a substance called biochar. Basically, it amounts to a carbon sink on agricultural land.

Artificial intelligence on the field

Other research involves harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce the environmental footprint of farming and make the use of chemical or biological control measures more efficient.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

For example, a smart sprayer prototype uses AI to spray "just on the weeds and just on the disease, not everywhere."

The device has a camera situated about 15 centimetres ahead of the spray nozzle. The camera captures ground images that are analyzed in the control system in real time as the sprayer rolls through the field or orchard.

That lets a grower spray as little as necessary, and minimize wastage.

'We are a multidisciplinary team' 

Farooque said there isn't one simple answer when it comes to addressing climate change and preserving the environment — but he said well-informed teamwork involving scientists and students is essential.

Faculty members from various departments and with different backgrounds work together on research projects at the centre to come up with integrated climate solutions.

One thing which we are doing well is collaboration with the industry and growers, where we work with them directly, we listen to them about the issues they are facing. — Aitazaz Farooque

"We have one faculty member on policy, we have one faculty member on modelling," he said as an example, and there are other collaborations within UPEI, with other institutions in Atlantic Canada, and nationally and internationally.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

"One thing which we are doing well," said Farooque, "is collaboration with the industry and growers, where we work with them directly, we listen to them about the issues they are facing."

From a farm family 

Inspired by his own father's work, Farooque completed a master's and PhD in precision agriculture — using information technology to determine exactly what the soil and crops are doing to help farmers manage their operations in a more eco-friendly and efficient way.

"My father is a farmer and he still farms, and that's where I developed my interest in agriculture," he said.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Farooque's work focuses on developing "climate-smart agricultural practices on Prince Edward Island to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." It also involves studying subsurface water contamination and nutrient run-off in surrounding water bodies.

As well as holding the associate dean's role, he is the director of the Centre for Excellence in Food Security, which is housed in the CCCCA.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

He is supervising multiple student projects that use technology to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

"A few of our students are also looking at the impact of climate change on animal and human health, and what is happening with the natural habitat," Farooque said.

Other student projects include studying heat waves and heat stress, and monitoring how much the sea is rising.

Living where they research

"Starting this fall, students will have the opportunity to live in the building while they complete their studies and research," Farooque said.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

The top two floors of the 45,000-square-foot, three-storey building in St. Peters Bay are dedicated to student residences, with about 20 apartments able to accommodate about 40 people.

"We have over 30 graduate students — M.Sc.s, PhDs — working on various aspects of climate change."

We want to leave a place for the upcoming generations that they can be proud of. — Aitazaz Farooque

Students from all over the world are pursuing graduate studies at the centre alongside Prince Edward Islanders, including people from China, India, the U.S., the U.K., Pakistan and more.

The work is not all about agriculture, of course.

Farooque said the centre is looking into developing renewables and wind energy options and working with engineers to develop "smart cities and urban planning scenarios so that we are emitting less."

He added: "We want to leave a place for the upcoming generations that they can be proud of."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting