Remote sensing project takes flight

In early 2015, Federal Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce announced that a project with multiple aims focussed on improving grower profitability and industries preparedness to manage pests and diseases was one of the first major projects funded under the new Rural R&D for Profit Scheme.

The successful project submitted through Horticulture Innovation Australia (HIA) and supported by Australian Mango Industry Association, Avocados Australia and the Australian Macadamia Society will utilise new technologies to develop better management and monitoring systems for the three tree crop industries. The project was awarded $3.4 million from the Rural R&D for Profit Scheme, and these funds will be matched with funding and in-kind contributions from industry and collaborating research bodies.

The project led by the University of New England Precision Agricultural Research Group (PARG) includes numerous leading tree-crop producers, University of Sydney, University of Queensland, Central Queensland University, DSITI, QDAF and AgTrix.

The project will integrate the latest imaging and robotics technologies to provide mango, avocado and macadamia farmers with decision-support tools to help improve production and profit. The data collected through this project, and the tools it develops, will help farmers to predict fruit quality and yield, and to monitor tree health including early detection of pests and disease outbreaks.

The project has also committed resources to investigate the Panama disease outbreak in Bananas.

Coinciding with the tree health and quality mapping will be a national Audit of commercial Avocado, Mango and Macadamia orchards. This data will provide essential information to industry to assist with annual production estimates and to identify regional changes in grower demographics. The audit information will also provide Biosecurity Australia with an up to date resource to draw upon in response to future biosecurity outbreaks.

With 2 key objectives, the project’s focus is:

1. National to tree level auditing of Tree crops using a Geographical Information System (GIS) framework:

A national audit of Mango, Avocado and Macadamia orchards will be undertaken. The audit will involve the analysis of historic and newly acquired satellite imagery, compilation of existing industry and government owned data, regional surveys and on- ground evaluation, with the outcomes used to derive respective GIS databases for each industry. These databases will identify the location, area and tree population of each commercial orchard.

At the national and state level this data will provide crucial industry information to support grower auditing, production estimation, traceability and to establish a more accurate understanding of the spatial and temporal distribution of production. Additionally these databases will provide accurate information to support state and federal government agencies biosecurity and post disaster monitoring.

At the grower level, prototype farm management systems will be developed that will allow individual trees to be spatially recorded within a farm based GIS framework. This will vastly improve currently adopted farm based data recording, including the ability to incorporate individual tree productivity, fruit quality, disease and pollination assessments, production inputs and management processes etc. This information will ultimately support improved farm gate to market traceability.

2. Evaluation of remote sensing for the mapping of tree production parameters including yield, fruit quality and tree health for each industry.

This research will focus at the tree/ orchard level but may be extrapolated to the regional level. The remote sensing technologies evaluated will predominantly include high spatial and spectral resolution satellite platforms such as Worldview 2 and Worldview 3.

To complement the evaluation of remote sensing data, a number of emerging technologies including robotics with machine vision capability for counting fruit and hand held spectral devices for measuring fruit quality and maturity will be evaluated on- ground.

The outputs of this objective will support improved on farm management by providing the grower with an in season measure of tree health, fruit quality and production.

This information will guide improved management decisions to increase yield and reduce input cost, harvest segregation based on quality and fruit size; assist with tree health monitoring including early detection of pest and disease out breaks, traceability, yield forecasting and the evaluating root stock performance.