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Students in M.Eng. Design program apply machine learning and data analytics to aquaponics farmingAugust 15, 2019

Jingpeng Zhai, a student in the Master of Engineering Design program with the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology has been working in a team of three with their client to design a process to help demonstrate the viability of a indoor aquaponics farming in Canada.

Systems and process design has the power to transform an entire industry. For example - today's most successful retail giants rose to dominance by designing highly optimized supply chain and distribution systems. Can indoor farming, through aquaponics, benefit from its own systems design?

Aquaponics blends aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants using nutrient-enriched water, rather than soil) and presents a promising and resource-efficient way of producing food for human use. However, it is complex to operate and needs to be finely tuned to maximize its economic output.

Jingpeng Zhai

As an interdisciplinary program, the M.Eng. Design admits students with a variety of STEM backgrounds, and Zhai is one of the students in the program who didn't graduate from a Bachelor of Engineering or Bachelor of Technology program.

Zhai completed a Bachelor of Science, Life Science, specializing in biochemistry. He knew he wanted to complete a master’s degree in a “dry lab” environment, processing and analyzing data, and the M.Eng.Design program offered him the courses he needed to achieve his goals. This included courses in data analytics, machine learning, and neural networks. The program’s focus on a major design project also allowed him to grow his practical expertise while developing his skills in design thinking.

His teammates, Ryan Schmalenberg and Wei Zhou completed their undergraduate education through the B.Tech. program; Schmalenberg in Manufacturing Technology, and Zhou in Software Engineering Technology.

Engaged by Finbyte and Aquagreens, the team combined Zhai’s interest in advanced data analytics and machine learning with Schmalenberg’s interests in machine vision and robotics and Zhou’s interest in improving processes through software design. The three of them worked to develop a system that combines real-time imaging data and multivariate system analytics to automate and optimize a functioning aquaculture facility in Mississauga.

Their solution captures and analyzes image data of plant growth, combines this information with other variables, processes it through machine learning algorithms and uses this analysis to adjust the flow of nutrients, optimizing growth in both plants and fish. Finally, a web application interface allows much of the day-to-day management of the facility to be monitored easily and remotely.

Andy Simoneau, professor in advanced manufacturing and Industry 4.0 is the supervising faculty member for the project. He’s enjoyed watching their progress and said, “It’s been a pleasure working with this team. As an educator, what I appreciated most is watching the three teammates, each with different backgrounds, connect their in-class and textbook learning to the project. They consistently recognize ways the theory they’ve learned can be applied in real-world solutions.”

Ali Sheikh, owner of Finbyte and himself an alumnus of the Engineering Design program appreciates the work done by Zhai, Schmalenberg and Zhou. "The project team brought a diverse set of skills and interests to designing the new system. I'm happy with the insights and added value they brought to it, and I appreciate Andy Simoneau's expertise as their faculty advisor at McMaster. Their support has helped immensely with R&D, while they get to apply their learning and grow their professional experience," said Sheikh.

Zhai’s found the project to be invaluable in his learning. And while he’s enjoyed his experience applying design-thinking to multivariate data analysis in indoor aquaponic farming, after graduating this fall, he sees himself returning to his interest in biochemistry – modelling and sequencing genetic data.

“If you have a goal in mind, the program is flexible enough to be tailored to your objectives and interests. I tailored the program to my interest in data analytics and A.I. systems, incorporating them into my design project,” said Zhai. “I’ve enjoyed applying my learning to a project that I never would have considered on my own, while also being totally transferrable to my long-term passions.”

The W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology operates as part of the Faculty of Engineering at McMaster, offering interdisciplinary and advanced education for both engineers and scientists to apply their learning to real-world problems and create value for society in new ways. Through interdisciplinary teams that work in complimentary ways, solutions like this one can help businesses prove their models through creative design thinking.

Visit the Master of Engineering Design webpage to learn more about the program as well as the requirements and deadlines to apply.