Growing up surrounded by planes, it is only natural that Danielle Bérard would be drawn skyward. Her father was an ag pilot (crop duster), and her two grandfathers were also pilots. The airstrip on her grandfather’s farm included a grass field where remote control model airplane hobbyists would camp every summer, capturing her attention.
When she joined EMILI as Innovation Farms Manager in 2022, one of the first things she did was research drones with multispectral sensors capable of scouting crop data to monitor and improve plant health.
Within a few months of starting her new role, she’d been certified by Transport Canada with an advanced drone license. This allows her to conduct multiple flights per week throughout the summer to collect land data across Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert.
This is great news for the machine learning project EMILI has partnered with UWinnipeg researchers Dr. Chris Bidinosti and Dr. Chris Henry on since 2019. Bidinosti and Henry, along with their research team, are working with EMILI to develop a crop identification algorithm able to identify different varieties of prairie crops and weeds.
Up until now, they have been collecting these images with a camera attached to the boom of a small tractor. This has provided valuable data and continues to deliver a close-up view of the field, but adding drone footage will not only increase the number of images the research team is able to capture in a season, it will also provide them with more powerful multispectral data to expand the robust capacity of the algorithm they are building.
Powering local solutions
The drone’s multispectral camera is capable of capturing wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye, providing vital information to estimate plant and soil health.
When applied to the machine learning algorithms being developed, this data will power technology to increase crop yields, expedite crop breeding, and optimize input application to meet the unique needs of Canadian prairie farmers.
“When you are trying to introduce new technology, you need local data to drive those deep learning algorithms,” said Bérard. “Having local data to drive technology and make the algorithms more accurate is what is going to need to happen for technology to work properly here in the prairies.”
In addition to building machine learning algorithms to identify plant vs weeds, EMILI and UWinnipeg have partnered with the National Research Council to develop an image collection of pea biomass and roots in order to assess the pea’s nodules and root system. This assessment will provide a framework for selecting crop traits toward more resilient, productive pea crops.
As Bérard navigates the drone across Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert to scan and image the pea plots, she is struck by the changes she’s seen in agriculture in her lifetime.
“Agricultural practices are constantly evolving,” she said. “Digital agriculture allows us to be more deliberate about how we manage our nutrients than we were in the past, giving us a better sense of our environment to help us make more informed decisions.”
Knowing firsthand how important it is to bring technology to market with a proven return on investment and proof of concept compels Bérard to take on projects that validate and demonstrate the solutions farmers are looking for.
“Farmers manage a lot of risk. If you want to add value to a farm you take away some risk. That’s what technology has to do,” she said.
Passion for flight started early
Bérard, a Franco-Manitoban who grew up in Southern Manitoba next door to her grandparents mixed grain and cow farm, spent her childhood sitting beside her grandfather, in his tractor and in the air.
“From a young age I was grandpa’s co-pilot checking fields from the air,” she said. “I still remember learning to navigate his airplane using our first handheld GPS in the late 90’s.”
In her last year of high school, she encouraged him to adopt autosteer.
“In the first few weeks after he installed it, he would call me out of class to find out how to set the A-B line on his autosteer,” she remembers.
She loved being the one to answer questions and solve problems and went on to study at the University of Manitoba, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Agronomy and met some of the “agronomy greats” that inspired her career.
She points to individuals like John Heard, Don Flaten, Mario Tenuta, Joy Agnew, Kim Brown Livingston, John Gavloski, and Jason Voogt, all generous with their time and knowledge, and whose expertise continues to guide her to this day.
It was Heard that encouraged EMILI to host Manitoba 4R Day at Innovation Farms this summer.
The event, which takes place August 9, 2023 in collaboration with Manitoba Agriculture, the University of Manitoba, Canola Council of Canada, Fertilizer Canada, Enns Brothers, and 4R Nutrient Stewardship, will open Innovation Farms for a day of field tours and demonstrations to showcase 4R practices.
Bérard sees the day as an important way to increase knowledge sharing and forge connections between innovative producers, industry leaders, and academic researchers in order to advance digital agriculture technology.
Attendees may also get a chance to see Bérard in action, doing what she loves best, flying a drone over Innovation Farms.
This profile is part of EMILI’s This is Agriculture series, highlighting talented and diverse individuals across the digital agriculture sector.