Australia’s first horticultural robotics learning and development hub

hicris-web

The Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (HICRIS) is Australia’s first horticultural robotics learning and development hub. It is driven by industry’s determination to adopt on-farm technologies, ramp up export capacity and develop future leaders in non-traditional areas of horticulture.

Located at the University of Sydney, HICRIS is initially hosting a $10 million commitment to projects in robotics and autonomous technology that aim to increase farm efficiencies.

Work at the centre includes, but is not limited to, developing technology that can detect foreign matter; robots that can map tree-crop architecture; and ground-breaking autonomous weed identification and eradication capabilities. We are also investigating capabilities such as automated crop forecasting to predict the best time to harvest and ground penetrating radar sensors to measure factors such as soil water content and root systems.

HICRIS was officially opened by Assistant Minister for Agriculture Senator Anne Ruston on October 6, 2016, and is located within the University of Sydney’s internationally-recognised Australian Centre for Field Robotics. It aims to attract Australia’s brightest minds in engineering and science, and currently has six research fellows, five PhD students and six technical staff. It also acts as a training facility for Australian growers and the future generations of students who are passionate about creating innovative solutions to drive the future of farming.

Ensuring industry access to the outputs from HICRIS research is key. Hort Innovation is working with growers, the university and the Australian Government to ensure the technology the centre is producing is commercially available in the not-too-distant future.

The projects

The Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (HICRIS) is currently delivering three large-scale projects that aim to make various production practices more efficient:

  • Multi-scale monitoring tools for managing Australian tree crops – Industry meets innovation (ST15004)
  • Evaluating and testing autonomous systems developed in Australian vegetable production systems (VG15059)
  • Using autonomous systems to guide vegetable decision making on-farm (VG15003).

Concurrently, Hort Innovation is working with the horticulture industry to inform research, technology and adoption-assistance needs.

Project details

HICRIS is funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia using the vegetable levy and funds from the Australian Government.

Delivery partners

University of Sydney Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR)

The robots

Researchers at the Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems will utilise and develop a range of technologies. Here are a few:

The Ladybird Farm Robot

Developed by ACFR as part of a previous Hort Innovation project, the Ladybird conducts various on-farm crop intelligence and crop manipulation.

It is an omni-directional robot that is battery operated and solar powered. It has an operational envelop of 7–9 hours before requiring recharge, and continuous operation can be conducted during cloudless day operations.

The platform has numerous sensing systems including hyperspectral; thermal infrared; panoramic vision; stereo vision with strobe; lidar and global positioning. These sensors allow many aspects of the crop to be measured and assessed. It also comes with a robotic arm that has been used successfully to demonstrate targeted spraying as well as mechanical crop manipulation.

RIPPA (Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application)

A pre-production model of the Ladybird platform, RIPPA, like the Ladybird, was delivered by the ACFR and funded through a previous Hort Innovation project using vegetable levies and funds from the Australian Government.

RIPPA uses the same power, drive train, solar charging systems and computing technologies of Ladybird as these are well-understood and meet requirements. The platform configuration has been modified to make it lighter, rugged, and easier to operate. The platform operates for 10-12 hours before recharging and will have continuous operation on cloudless days.

Mantis and Shrimp

Mantis and shrimp are general purpose perception research ground vehicles. They are flexible platforms which allow rapid deployment in new environments. They contain various sensors (see image above) and a soil conductivity sensor (dragged behind Shrimp), a natural gamma radiation sensor (also to measure soil properties) and recently a hyperspectral imaging sensor were recently added to the farmbots.

The projects

HICRIS will initially support three large-scale projects which aim to increase on-farm efficiencies.

Multi-scale monitoring tools for managing Australian tree crops – Industry meets innovation

This collaborative 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 University of Sydney is tasked with delivering a facet of this project which involves utilising the equipment at the Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems to assist with mapping and data collection. Currently, the university is working on ways to improve mango counting and avocado pruning recommendations. Predicting fruit count will help producers plan marketing and packaging, and it will reduce business risk. Field work at various Australian farm test sites have also been taking place.

Value: $788,000

Funded through: The Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as part of its Rural R&D for Profit programme and funds from the Australian Government

Due for completion: Mid 2018

Evaluating and testing autonomous systems developed in Australian vegetable production systems

A key facet of this project is to help translate the research done to date into tangible commercial outcomes for end users. The objective is to prove the operational effectiveness of the systems developed, and to simultaneously undertake economic, market and IP evaluations of these technologies in order to define potential commercial pathways, along with identifying potential commercial partners.

This project will also involve designing, building, demonstrating and evaluating robotic platforms and utilising them across varied growing regions to prove operational effectiveness.

Value: $5.1M

Funded through: Horticulture Innovation Australia using vegetable industry levies and funds from the Australian Government

Due for completion: 2021

Using autonomous systems to guide vegetable decision making on-farm

The aim of this project is to further develop the adoption of technologies that reduce production cost and increase on farm productivity in the vegetable industry, in particular Brassica, Lettuce and Baby Leaf. This project will advance:

Sensing: In addition to the sensing capabilities on the Ladybird robot, this project will also look at sensors for soil, water and nitrate mapping, including potential use of thermal imaging and fusion with other modalities such as stereo vision; and ground penetrating radar sensors to measure in-ground traits including soil water content and sub-surface plant traits (e.g. the root system).

Automated Decision Support Systems: This project will focus on – depending on testing outcomes – improving crop quality mapping to achieve crop uniformity; and automated crop forecasting to predict optimum harvest time. Monitoring soil quality; determination of seed-spacing based on soil performance; nitrate deficiency detection and mapping; decision models for automated fertiliser application; water stress detection and mapping; and foreign object detection (e.g. pre-harvest field scan) could be further outcomes.

Farm Automation Standards:

To adopt new technologies into horticulture production systems, technology standards and policies will to be developed.

Value: $3.8M

Funded through: Horticulture Innovation Australia using vegetable industry levies and funds from the Australian Government

Due for completion: 2021