Specialty crops need more agtech investment

Specialty crops like avocados, strawberries and kiwifruit need more research and investment into agtech solutions.

While globally a myriad of players are starting to invest heavily in agtech, only limited money is being invested in specialty crops like avocados, strawberries and kiwifruit, says Plus Group’s Steve Saunders.

“And what’s becoming one of the biggest issues? The labour challenge. This year – for the first time – 1200 workers short for kiwifruit harvest. I’ve been in the kiwifruit industry for 25 years – never heard of that until this year. It’s really starting to impact,” says Steve.

He’s built innovative robotics and automation tech company RobiticsPlus, founded Newnham Park innovation center, WNT tech incubator and Tauranga’s new regional research centre PlantTech, and spoke at the 2018 NZ Avocado International industry Conference.

He talked of how robotics and automation and new technologies might impact avocado growers’ futures regarding long-term sustainability, orchard structures, labour requirements, crop estimation – and the need for R&D investment.

Driving this is the estimated 10 billion mouths to feed by 2050 – and challenges of ageing farmers, reducing labour, limited natural resources and environmental impacts of the way we farm.

Steve says technology is moving so fast that it’s becoming more affordable “so you can start to look at how these technologies can be adapted into the environment we work in”.

“RobiticsPlus can map a kiwifruit orchard as we drive through it – we can look at layers, structures, vine structures, leaf areas, we can see if a person is going to run in front of the robot – and stop. This is becoming more affordable – five years ago we wouldn’t have dreamed of having the sensors on our robots today.”

Plus artificial intelligence, with machine learning, is also allowing greater data insights of what’s going on in our environments.

“And in the US I went a course on how to drive a forklift in the virtual reality world. So you start to imagine how VR can be used in training your staff to operate machinery.

“You also start to imagine if someone can be sitting in India in augmented reality, with real camera feeds and a hydroladder here in NZ – they’re actually, with a robot hand, picking your avocados. Those sorts of realities can happen.”

But Steve says if industries want this technology going forward, they’ve got to start thinking about it now and how they invest “because the pathway to get to this technology is not short because you’re dealing with an adverse environment”.


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