A new innovation cluster on a former research farm in Nepean, Ont., is expected to boost artificial intelligence (AI) and remote-sensing technology to Canada’s farmers.
“I’m not even a farmer, and I’m really excited about it,” said Michael Tremblay, chief executive officer of Invest Ottawa.
Why it matters: Having access to made-in-Canada offerings of data collection and storage technologies could be a difference maker for many farmers concerned about privacy and tech availability.
The City of Ottawa’s economic development wing, with support from federal and provincial governments, as well as private sector agreements, unofficially launched what is now known as the Area X.0 Smart Farm in February, but delayed the official announcement due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
The project leveraged $29 million in public and private sector investment, stated the official launch news release in early October.
It said the Smart Farm “provides producers, agtech innovators, and firms access to one of the most advanced communications test systems in the world; cutting-edge AI and data analytic technologies; 100 acres of secure, completely gated farmland and demonstration area; and the highest tech talent concentration per capita in North America.”
The 100-acre parcel is part of the larger, 1,800-acre former Greenbelt Research Farm, which is owned by the National Capital Commission and is now largely rented out for agricultural purposes. But there are also 22 buildings.
“Many are for storage, some of the farm operations have storage there,” said Tremblay. Ritchie Feed and Seed has some space, as does Bell Canada. But there’s also a 16-kilometre network of roadways, which brought Invest Ottawa to the site beginning in 2018 when it saw a provincial government funding application approved to become one of six autonomous vehicle testing centres. And, since that time, AI-technology companies have also occupied some of the buildings.
“Provectus Robotics has a lab bay here. We have a command centre here,” Tremblay explained. Other spaces are occupied by Nokia, GPS Ontario and Carleton University.
Area X.0 is drawing on its proximity to headquarters for Canada’s defence and security agencies to develop a specialization in AI-controlled first response and military vehicles. It’s also promoting itself as a site for research and development related to the next-generation 5G communications network.
Tremblay said the same factors make Area X.0 ideal for cutting-edge AI farming applications. Of particular interest, he says, will be Telesat’s ongoing work with low Earth orbiting satellites — a sector in which the Canadian company competes with the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, in the development of technologies to be used in 5G communications.
“As these get deployed, they’re going to have a huge impact, including for farmers,” Tremblay said. “Because it’s going to make a huge difference in remote areas, where now it can be very difficult to access the available networks.”
One key private sector collaborator is North Gower-based GPS Ontario, known for bringing California’s Trimble smart-farming technology to Canada. They have indoor space at the site, along with a crop-growing demonstration plot outside of Invest Ottawa’s Area X.0’s “command centre.”
In a news release, Jordan Wallace, GPS Ontario’s sales and advanced solutions technician, said the innovation cluster “provides our firm with critical validation and demonstration space that’s outfitted with the advanced technology, expertise and industry best management practices.”
Perhaps as importantly, the company is also ensuring the Smart Farm’s leadership team remains aware of the agricultural potential, by keeping Invest Ottawa aware of the possibilities.
“When they hold up two stalks of corn, with one that had precision application of fertilizers and the other that didn’t, and even I can tell the difference, that’s when I get really excited about what this could mean to farmers,” Tremblay said.