“Cutting-edge” technology to digitally examine fruit trees gets green light  - Fruit & Vine

“Cutting-edge” technology to digitally examine fruit trees gets green light 

A project that aims to develop a commercially viable system for precisely targeting orchard inputs to specific trees, or even parts of a tree, has been given the go-ahead. The £4.5 million project has been led by Hutchinsons agronomist, Rob Saunders, and partly funded by the commercial partners, Innovate UK and Defra.

The Precision Orchard Management for the Environment (POME) project will digitally examine fruit trees in fine detail.

The Precision Orchard Management for the Environment (POME) project is using “cutting-edge” technology to digitally examine fruit trees in fine detail, allowing inputs to be targeted in a way that has never been seen before in UK orchards, Hutchinsons says.  

Mr Saunders explained that the scheme’s ultimate aim is to reduce the environmental impact of tree fruit production by using fewer plant protection products, while simultaneously increasing orchard production efficiency, output, and profitability through increased yield and grade-out.  

The system will use digital scanning to generate precision dosing maps for blossom and fruit thinning, fertiliser application, growth regulators, pest control, and fungicides, as well as to provide more accurate yield forecasting for growers. The integration with precision dosing application equipment will together help reduce the use of plant protection products, increase yields, and cut fruit losses.  

Mr Saunders added: “It’s about raising the efficiency of how we use all resources that go into fruit production, including the land.”

Taking precision to the next level 

POME builds on work undertaken in a separate Innovate UK-funded Precision Orchard Dosing System (PODS) project that used LIDAR scanning of trees in winter to map height and density, before a drone-based scan in the spring to assess blossoms.   

These data were analysed using machine vision and machine learning to develop a variable rate plan for applying thinners and growth regulators through a purpose-built sprayer fitted with RTK-GPS and robotic localisation and mapping techniques, giving high levels of accuracy in complicated horticulture environments.  

“The aim of PODS was to prove the concept could work and develop a prototype,” explained Mr Saunders. “Now, with the new POME project, we want to take all of that work on to the next stage and develop a commercially viable precision orchard management system that is ready for market in the next four years.”  

He acknowledges that it is an ambitious task, but one that he believes is entirely feasible given the “world-leading, industry-wide consortium involved in the project”.   

Alongside Hutchinsons, this includes engineers N. P. Seymour; Global Navigation Satellite System and software developer The Acclaimed Software Company; marketing desk Avalon Fresh; aerial imaging company Outfield; robotics firm Antobot; disease, pest and stress detection specialists Fotenix; horticultural experts from NIAB East Malling; data science expertise from NIAB Cambridge; agri-economics from the University of Kent; robotics and automation expertise from Loughborough University; and the Health and Safety Executive’s Chemicals Regulation Division (CRD).  

How POME will work 

There are three main elements to the POME project. The starting point is to gather data about the health and growth of orchard trees autonomously, rather than relying on the agronomist or grower having to walk up and down rows looking for differences or potential issues.  

The team is developing three main ways of collecting data, including tractor-mounted sensors to identify any variations in tree health or development, drone surveying during the flowering period to map blossom intensity of individual trees across the entire orchard, as well as robot scanning from the ground.   

Scanning during daytime can be affected by variations in natural light intensity, therefore, robot scanning will be done autonomously at night using artificial lights fitted to the vehicle and carried out at low speeds that would not be practical for a tractor-based operation.  

These three sources of data will then be brought together into a central computer software platform, where everything can be analysed and interpreted to ultimately generate a user-friendly digital map of the orchard, highlighting variations in any of the factors that the sensors recorded.   

This could include areas of a specific disease, or, as in the PODS project, variability in the size, density, and crop load of individual trees – a major cause of sub-optimal yield and quality in commercial fruit orchards.  

The final part of the project will develop a commercially viable application system that can use the data and digital maps generated to vary inputs according to the specific requirements of individual trees.  

Future is not going to be like the past

To achieve this level of detail, it requires a consistently high degree of accuracy, both in the mapping of crops, and in the variable application of inputs, Mr Saunders says. This is why Loughborough University has been enlisted, to provide its cutting-edge machine learning and location system, which can deliver exceptionally high centimetre-level navigation accuracy.  

Mr Saunders added: “Some might think that systems like this are complicated and expensive, and only suited to very large-scale farms. The system we are building will cater for different sizes of farm business and with optional services depending on the farm’s need.   

“The industry has changed a lot in recent years and will continue to do so as technology advances, and we believe systems like this will become commonplace. Times change, and one thing is clear, the future certainly isn’t going to be like the past.” 

Read more fruit articles here.

© Fruit & Vine 2024. All Rights Reserved.

Website Design by Unity Online

Sign Up To   Fruit & Vine

Our free* magazine subscription offers a host of benefits to those in the wine making, fruit growing, juice and cider producing industries - find out more, and sign up today, below.

Sign Up Today *Fruit & Vine is sent free-of-charge to qualifying industry professionals in the UK.