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Taking to the skies for a better view
12 January 2017

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and it’s believed the use of robots, drones and automated systems are the future when it comes to enhancing efficiency and productivity within the horticulture industry.

With interest in this area growing, avocado export supply group AVOCO is actively exploring how the data generated from future mapping technology could improve the way growers and the wider industry operate in years to come.

“Being able to estimate crop volumes would be incredibly beneficial to AVOCO and the industry,” says AVOCO technical manager Colin Partridge.

“If we could identify the number of fruit on trees between March and May every year, that would be very helpful and I would encourage further exploration in this area.”

While the ability to measure fruit size or volume is likely to be several years away, growers attending an AVOCO drone technology field day at a Katikati orchard were given a glimpse into the future of how information collected using aerial mapping can already help them measure the health of their trees and track changes on their orchards over time.

Aerial data

Thanks to James Paterson, the co-founder of South African-based Aerobotics, growers were shown how the company’s aerial data, undertaken with a 1.5m-wide automated drone, can generate various data “layers” of an orchard, generating bird’s eye visual maps as well as maps that report on canopy cover, tree counts and spacing.

Other measurement tools can take cross-sections of an orchard to view elevation profiles and crop heights. Information generated by the on-board infrared cameras can also be used to understand drainage patterns and identify tree stress, pinpointing problem areas in an orchard.

“If growers decide to take action on an area of their orchard, or even on an individual tree, they can use the drone and the software to monitor and measure how those trees respond over a period of time.

“The aim is to improve yield and the data collected can report on whether various management strategies around things like irrigation or fertiliser applications are working or need revising,” says James.

Precision benefits

The data precision benefits of drone technology and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are also being explored at one of five packhouses supporting AVOCO.

Trevelyan’s in Te Puke currently works closely with Tauranga-based company, GPS-it, to aerial map its kiwifruit orchards and back in October approached another local company, Digipix, to map 20ha across four avocado orchards on Maniatutu Rd.

Trevelyan’s Packhouse avocado manager Daniel Birnie says a move to aerial mapping is just another evolution in offering the best technology and equipment to growers and contractors.

However, the idea is very much in the early stages with Trevelyan’s management working through the logistics and weighing up the cost/benefits of mapping 300ha spread across 150 growers.

For Trevelyan’s, the main advantages of UAV mapping are their precision, in comparison to the current 2D maps implemented, and the ability to limit health and safety concerns as people don’t need to set foot into any hazardous areas.

Next level

“An actual camera shot, like that of DigiPix’s, will show us additional features such as GPS and the topography. This will take mapping to the next level and provide us more accurate information to share with everyone throughout the process,” says Trevelyan’s technical manager Phil Allison

“Some orchards we have already GPS mapped, but we want to investigate how the drone takes into account the topography and whether that gives you an accurate per hectare measurement of the orchards too.”

As well as helping Trevelyan’s and contractors better manage hazards on an orchard, having an accurate picture of an orchard’s contour ahead of time will assist in the planning of a harvest whereby the most appropriate Hydralada can be matched to suit each orchard’s particular landscape.

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado