A battery-powered fully-autonomous robot system, which can scan kiwifruit orchards and offer growers a full picture of their crop via accurate data, was drawing the interest of many in the horticultural industry at Fieldays.
The robot is the brainchild of Nicholas Woon and Matthew Warner – and is the start of their business Acuris Systems, which is in the pre-commercial stage but ultimately is aiming to give growers the power to make decisions from definitive ground-truth data.
Accurate data is something that Nicholas says is missing in the kiwifruit orcharding industry – which is why he and Matthew set up their analytics and automation company, based in Auckland, in late-2016.
Nicholas says currently most kiwifruit orchardists take a walk through their orchard, have a look at the crop flowering and guesstimate how much thinning they should undertake to increase their yield.
“Often the information is formed from tiny samples sizes – and from this growers make crucial decisions that can impact the quality of their yield and ultimately affect their season’s results on large areas of their orchards.
“What we do is we provide an industry-first, 100 per cent, full population count for every hectare on a kiwifruit orchard.
“This gives growers a full picture of their crop and allows them to make data-driven decisions to optimise yield and mitigate risks.”
Acuris Systems will deploy the robotics system in an orchard to scan vines – in particular kiwifruit buds, flowers and fruitlet – so accurate data can be given to the grower to determine their crop-load balance for the season.
“So we will turn up to an orchard with a bunch of these units. They will go out and scan up and down each row of vines from underneath – we’ll gather that data and process it on our computers and give growers hard data,” says Matthew.
Stationed inside the Innovations Centre at Fieldays, the pair were explaining how the robot works on-orchard and how the data is presented to growers.
The battery-powered fully-autonomous robot – which doesn’t require remote control – runs itself around an orchard via a sensor package and smart software.
“Huge amounts of fruit data is collected via the camera on the robot then we process this data to form high-quality, accurate orchard information,” says Nicholas.
Acuris Systems was born after Matthew heard about data challenges facing orchardists from a family friend.
“His family own an orchard and I was always hearing about his issues on-orchard and he was thinking: ‘Why can’t the technology be available to solve these problems?’.”
“I’d finished university and was doing some project work. I have a big robotics background. I’ve built them all of my life.
“So I was thinking about this orchardist’s issues and I knew a lot of new technology had come out allowing small companies to implement technology like this because it is all locally sourced now.
“And the more we talked to them, and the more we talked to the kiwifruit industry, the more we found there’s a huge problem in the sparseness of data within traditional methods of capturing it so we set out to change that.”
And while the robot has been on-orchard for preliminary trials, the pair are now embarking on a pilot programme and have signed on four customers – “two of which are quite large post-harvest operators”.
“So we’re scanning 200ha of kiwifruit vines over the course of this season, in the Bay of Plenty – mainly during flowering in late-September,” says Matthew.
The pair say their commercial partnering will finish at the season’s end, when harvest begins in March, “then we want to scale up and ramp up and begin commericialising from there”.