Developing smarter equipment for potato farming

Dalhousie University Agriculture researcher Ahmad Al-Mallahi is working on sensors and automation to make potato farming smarter.

Dalhousie University Agriculture researcher Ahmad Al-Mallahi is working on sensors and automation to make potato farming smarter.

February 05, 2019
Thanks to new technologies, traditional, often laborious and time consuming farming practices are few and far between.

One researcher at Dal's Faculty of Agriculture is working to continue to further develop sustainable methods of farming to produce the food that we eat through smart agriculture, sensing and automation in the fields.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi was welcomed to Truro in October as the McCain Research Chair and assistant professor in the Department of Engineering.

Born and raised in Kuwait, Dr. Al-Mallahi and his family moved to Jordan when he was 13 years old. He began his post-secondary studies as a physics student in Jordan but quickly learned that was not quite the right path for him.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi:

“I met a friend who introduced me to agricultural engineering,.”

“I liked the concept of applying physics on biology with the ultimate goal of providing enough food for the population. I decided to change my major starting in my second year.”

Turning points

Dr. Al-Mallahi earned his B.Sc. (Agriculture Engineering [Power and Machinery]) at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. Upon completion, he began working as an engineer of off-road vehicles in a road construction project. Three months into the job, Dr. Al-Mallahi was in a car accident.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi:

“That was a turning point in my career.”

“I had to be off of work for more than four months during which I gave a lot of thought about my future career. I decided then to continue my graduate studies.”

“In 2004, I moved to Japan where I studied and worked until moving to Canada in October.”
During his studies in Japan, Dr. Al-Mallahi completed his MSc in Crop Production Engineering and PhD in Bioproduction Engineering through Hokkaido University. After several years of industry experience with Amino Up Chemical of Japan and German corporation, Bosch, he is excited to begin his adventure in academia at Dal AC.

Dr. Al-Mallahi’s current research focuses on improving the efficiency of crop production operations. Specifically, he is looking to develop smarter machines to assist farmers in crop planting, harvesting, and cultivating.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi:

“This means that machines must be equipped with the correct sensors to assist them in making decisions.”

“Sensors can do many different things but a few of the sensors I am working with are ultrasonic sensors to measure distances, light sensors to detect obstacles and environmental sensors to understand the conditions around the machines.”

Considering each crop

The ultimate goal of Dr. Al-Mallahi’s research is to develop machines and equipment with precise operations to reduce the amount of waste output while producing food.

As with any research, Dr. Al-Mallahi's has faced many challenges with developing sensors to be used on farming equipment. Some of his biggest challenges have been optimizing the sensors to meet the objectives of his research, irregularities in crop production and the broad customer base for the final products.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi:

“One challenge we’ve faced is that each crop requires its own equipment to meet different needs- planters, harvesters, sorters and more.”

“This can get expensive because the number of customers for each piece of equipment is limited. The challenge now is to develop systems, whether sensing or actuating systems, to be scalable so that they can be applied in different scenarios.”
He's certainly reached many accomplishments with his research. One of his most notable accomplishments so far has been developing autonomous implements to work with robotic tractors.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi:

“Nowadays there are unmanned tractors that can scan the fields by GPS.”

“What I’ve done is develop some implements so that the attached equipment can send commands to the tractor. They could also send a report to the tractor about how their performance has been.”

“For example, a planter will monitor itself and inform the tractor to stop when the seeds in the tank are about to run out.”

Collaboration with industry

In addition to teaching students at Dal Ac, which will begin next winter, Dr. Al-Mallahi will work as a research chair on campus through McCain Foods and Potatoes New Brunswick. His research program will be built in partnership with McCain Foods of Florenceville, New Brunswick as well as the Potato Board to identify challenges with potato production.

Within the potato industry, Dr. Al-Mallahi will provide leadership and support in the areas of sensors and automation for the advancement of smart agriculture technologies. His work will look to tackle the identified challenges by building a research team to conduct research, build prototypes and finally, contribute in building a system to better serve the industry.

Ahmad Al-Mallahi:

“For me this position as a research chair came as the perfect time as it requires close relationship with the industry while building a research program that will help to train highly qualified students.”

“What makes me feel even more excited about this position is that my PhD thesis was about potato production. The fact that not only the field of study but also the crop in question is very close to my expertise let me feel more attached to this position.”

“I certainly did not hesitate when I was offered the position although I had to change countries to be here.”
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