Working smarter with data – AI gives agriculture the competitive edge

@AuManufacturing‘s editorial series, ‘Working smarter with data‘, continues today with agriculture, where hardware, software and data are driving massive change. Here, Tony Blackie profiles Green Atlas and its use of Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence is becoming an essential tool for Australian farmers with increasing numbers embracing new technology to gain a competitive edge.

University researchers turned entrepreneurs Steve Scheding, James Underwood and Peter Morton, have left the quiet contemplation of academia for the hurly burly of commercial life and have found a ready market for their AI based agricultural analytics tool.

Green Atlas Australia’s first product, the Green Atlas Cartographer is an innovative combination of hardware and software that allows flower and fruit counts to be quickly and accurately mapped over entire orchards.

Linked into a proprietary system, the Cartographer gives farmers a high level of detail, allowing them to make better critical conditions about the management of their farms.

For rural enterprises such as fruit, nut and cotton growers, the system offers a hither to unachievable amount of information allowing crop management to be tailored to every tree.

Essentially, AI technology provides us with decision making data to help us make better decisions much faster and more accurately. And the applications and benefits for farming are huge.

Artificial intelligence technologies, in combination with good farming practice, can be a way of increasing and improving crop yields. It can help to manage scarce resources like water and soil nutrient.

Australia has been established as a leader in this technology with Green Atlas’ Cartographer already being adopted internationally.

Founders Scheding Underwood and Morton, applied years of research knowledge from University of Sydney, Rio Tinto and robotics, telematics and self drive vehicle development to create a ground breaking system to help farmers to understand data insights such as temperature, precipitation, wind speed, and solar radiation particularly relating to tree-crops.

Scheding said: “The system is helping farmers to managing the life-cycle of each and every piece of fruit on every tree in their orchard.”

The green Atlas team have developed a mobile system of cameras and laser technology mounted on quad bikes or small utilities. The cameras and laser are connected to the computer system which maps the orchard and gives accurate flower and fruit counts. The farmer is then given access to huge amount of detail.

In the past this had to be done by individuals walking up and down the rows of tree in an orchard providing sketchy detail.

Green Atlas’ orchard scanning platform can count the flowers and fruit covering up to eight hectares an hour.

“We have made our system very easy to use. We can drive fast, 40 to 50 kilometres per hour mapping the orchard and the operator doesn’t need to be an expert to collect or to read the data output.

“We have made all our systems very easy to use, it just a flick of a switch.”

Scheding said that the mapping of orchards and properties is currently underway as the spring buds appear.

“On each car we have two cameras and a LIMDAR laser radar with 16 laser beams that spin around at high speed shooting laser light into the trees, several hundred thousand beams per second.

“We can then reconstruct a 3D vision of the tree.”

Green Atlas is a relatively new company having now completed two seasons of mapping and the system has scanned more than 27,000 hectares of tree-crops so far. As an start up company, the founders did not want to sell out the intellectual property to a large investor, so the build the business slow on their own resources.

“We had to find early adopters who would take a risk with a new company, fortunately farmers tend to open to new processes.

“We started with apples scanning orchards in flowering. Almonds have now become a large part and the industry came to us. In the first year we mapped 5000 hectares of almond, this year in June we scanned 15,000 hectares which is about a third of the Australian crop.”

Batlow in the South West Slopes region of New South Wales is famous for its apples and Andrew Desprez is regional orchard manager for the Batlow Fruit Company.

He has taken delivery of a Green Atlas system and has started the scanning of the company’s orchards through early spring.

He says the company is always on the look out for new technologies which will help keep better, healthier and he met the founders of Green Atlas at a robotics in Agriculture event at University of Sydney several years ago and has kept in touch.

Batlow Apples produces about 45 per cent of the NSW crop and NSW produces about 18 per cent of the total Australian crop so the company is a significant contributor to the rural economy.

Desprez said: “We will do two scans a season.

“Flowering time, which is now, and in December when we will do a fruit count, we may do multiple fruit counts.”

Desprez refers to the Green Atlas process as a vital part in the Precision Agriculture concept.

This is usually defined as a farm management approach using information technology tools such as GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, variable rate technology, GPS-based soil sampling, automated hardware, telematics, and software.

He says that when the maps of the orchards are overlaid, he is able to work out soil types, where more pruning is required to thin out the flower load to gain optimal fruit load per season.

The effects of rainfall variation and past pruning can also be identified. Overall, the gives the grower a more accurate estimation of how much fruit is likely each season.

This is important from a logistics perspective as the grower can work out how many pickers and packers they will need, how many boxes will be required.

The system has now gaining international prominence and has been picked up in France, Chile and New Zealand.

Picture: Green Atlas

@AuManufacturing‘s series is brought to you with the support of Fusion5, the largest 5-Star NetSuite Partner in Australia & New Zealand, providing full-featured cloud business management software solutions.

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