Dr. Chandra Singh, applied research chair in Agricultural Engineering and Technology.

A sweet new Lethbridge College research project exploring how automation and wireless technology can improve sugar beet storage is getting a boost after securing new funding from Alberta Innovates.

Dr. Chandra Singh, the applied research chair in Agricultural Engineering and Technology at Lethbridge College’s Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CARIE), is receiving $236,083 through the Alberta Innovates Smart Agriculture and Food Digitization and Automation Challenge. The challenge supports projects to develop smart technology or generate knowledge to increase productivity, reduce production costs, or increase the value of Alberta’s agri-food commodities.

“Sugar beet farming and processing is a significant contributor to the southern Alberta economy, contributing $32.2 million in farm receipts annually,” says Singh. “Growers and processors face unique challenges with this crop; this project is an opportunity to develop solutions to reduce losses and improve productivity.”

Singh’s project is one of just eight projects selected. The selected projects, at a total value of over $10.7 million, were selected to receive grants of between $39,510 to $500,000, totaling a combined $3 million in funding.

Dr. Chandra Singh (left) and Bryan Avison, Agricultural Superintendent for Lantic/Rogers Sugar, examine technology in a sugar beet storage field.

“We celebrate with Lethbridge College on the success of Dr. Chandra Singh’s project that will develop smart technology to optimize sugar beet storage in southern Alberta,” says Dr. Natisha Stashko, Executive Director of Smart Agriculture and Food, Alberta Innovates. “The work he will engage in will advance the agri-food sector and that’s not only good for Albertans, but for farmers and producers around the world.”

In Alberta, freshly harvested sugar beets are stored outdoors during the winter months in bulk piles weighing up to 50,000 tons before being processed at the Rogers and Lantic factory in Taber, the only sugar beet processing facility in Canada. However, insufficient ventilation can leave sugar beets vulnerable to temperature swings, which can cause the roots to lose sugar or rot. Singh’s project aims to develop a remote wireless sensing system for monitoring the temperature in the piles and an efficient aeration system to control it.

“We will have wireless sensors inside the piles that will send temperature data to the cloud and the user can see it remotely,” explains Singh. “The sensors will also use that data to make a smart decision to tell the fan when to turn on in order to maintain a target temperature. This process will be completely automated, so you don’t have to have people going out and physically checking the piles.”

The three-year, $404,733 total project is a research collaboration with Lethbridge College, Lantic and the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers (ASBG), with Calgary’s OPisystems providing technical support.

Sugar beets at the Rogers and Lantic factory in Taber.

“We are looking forward to the work that Dr. Singh and his team will conduct with this project,” says ASBG President Gary Tokariuk. “Improving the quality of sugar beets while in storage has been a longstanding issue in our industry, one that has cost both the growers and the processor in the past. Anything we can do to help better understand the condition of the sugar beets in the pile to mitigate damage will result in more sugar extracted from the beet. This is profitable for both the processor and the grower.”

Agriculture research teams at Lethbridge College operate under the Integrated Agriculture Technology Centre (IATC) within the Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The IATC connects small- and medium-sized enterprises in the agriculture industry with the technologies and research expertise at Lethbridge College to enhance their productivity, competitiveness and innovation results. Lethbridge College has been recognized as one of Canada’s fastest-growing research colleges while earning its highest ever placement in 2020’s annual ranking of Canada’s top 50 research colleges. The college placed 26th on the top 50 list released by Research Infosource and ranked third in research income growth.