Mechatronics in Motion: SFU Engineering students gear up for Tanzania fieldwork

Accompanied by  Woo Soo Kim, students from the School of Mechatronic Systems Eng
Accompanied by Woo Soo Kim, students from the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering are embarking on an expedition to Tanzania. The group will split into two teams: one focused on utilizing drones for mapping plantations, while the other delves into studying and managing weeds.
Armed with prototypes of a weed-removal robot and drone-based crop-analyzing software, 11 Simon Fraser University (SFU) mechatronic students will soon embark on a life-changing trip to Africa’s ecologically important Arusha Climate and Environmental Research Centre (ACER) in Tanzania.

A 2022 flagship initiative of Aga Khan University, ACER is an important ecological site used to advance global research in the field of environmental science and pursue sustainable agricultural development goals.

The delegation - nine undergraduate students and two graduate students led by professor Woo Soo Kim - will represent SFU’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering (MSE) on its inaugural field trip to the research centre, where they will field-test their newly developed innovations on more than 3,700 acres of rich, diverse agricultural land.

This visit is a result of a newly re-developed fourth-year undergraduate capstone project is a result of Kim’s visit to Tanzania with an SFU delegation in 2023, including president Joy Johnson and vice-president, Research and International, Dugan O’Neil in the fall of 2023.

SFU and Aga Khan University (AKU) have shared a formal partnership since the two institutions signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2022, demonstrating their shared values and a commitment to collaboration in research and global initiatives.

During the previous trip, Kim visited local farms and spoke with community members to find out about their most difficult agricultural challenges.

Upon his return to Canada, he wondered how to successfully apply the principles of mechatronics systems engineering - which is the synergy between electrical engineering and mechanical engineering - to solve some of Tanzania’s agricultural problems, while also considering potential innovations in collaboration with B.C. companies.

One of the MSE students at the field school, Kimia Rezaeian, of the aptly named "Weed Warriors" team that developed the weed management robot, says automation and robotics have become increasingly important in agriculture to mitigate the impacts of climate change on crop yields.

"I am eager to show local farmers what my team has worked on for the past couple of months, and work with them to draft and improve upon our ideas and designs," she said.

Fourth-year student Jeannifer Labelle, a member of the drone team, says they will be collecting drone-captured images to analyze crop height using their algorithm, which would then empower farmers to better optimize their harvest.

"Our team is dedicated to reducing barriers and improving access to these technologies in diverse landscapes," she said. "Contributing to innovative solutions within the agricultural field is pivotal for a sustainable future, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to engage with Tanzanian communities."

As both MSE professor and scientific director of the B.C. Centre for Agritech Innovation (BCCAI) , Kim couldn’t help but notice how BCCAI’s mission aligns with the research and development-based partnership between SFU and AKU-ACER. Their mutual goals include investment in innovation, agricultural technology and the training and upscaling of agricultural solutions.

"Each individual region has challenges, and perhaps [Tanzania’s] problems can be solved with our solutions. We can help each other and eventually global challenges like climate change or food security issues, and bigger objectives, can be achieved by engaging in these activities."