HOME-grown technology could help orchardists identify pollination blackspots within their trees.
A University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics' four-year study has proven unmanned, in-field robots can identify fruit on trees and record the data.
The two 1.5m-high Australian-made robots were trialled in apple, custard apple, avocado, lychee, almond and banana farms where they were manouvered up and down cropping rows.
Working concurrently on either side of tree rows, the robots utilised cameras, lasers and software to create a series of algorithms which led to the identification of the fruit.
The robots were able to identify the fruit load on the trees with an accuracy rating of between 60 to 96 per cent, depending on the commodity and the amount of leaf coverage and sunlight.
This highlighted patterns in yield variations within the crop and consequently, where pollination had been less than ideal.
Horticulture Innovation Australia (HIA) has commissioned the research. It is investing more than $15 million in autonomous-based projects.
HIA CEO John Lloyd said the project was another step toward a possible future where robots improved efficiencies for horticulture producers.
“This is a very exciting finding as this technology has the ability to help growers identify issues such as a lack of pollination and address them quickly,” he said.
Further on from that, he said the possibility of autonomous robot harvesting gets clearer.
“This study has provided a real window into a not too distant future where labour hire shortages and associated costs no longer need to be key concerns for tree crop growers,” he said.
“Ultimately, this technology will enable growers to save time and money, allowing growers to get their produce to consumers more efficiently while increasing their overall farm gate returns.”
Mr Lloyd said the next step is to use these findings to inform further development of robotics systems that autonomously harvest, and also have the potential to undertake tasks such as pest management.
Robotics are also being explored for pollination possibilities in other parts of the world.
For several years now, Harvard University in the United States has been working on robotic insects.
It's "RoboBee" program lists artificial crop pollination as one of the potential uses for its tiny autonomous flying devices.
However, the program's website points out the practical implementation of the artificial bees would be at least 20 years away.