Good crop, bad crops

Or­chardists could soon ben­e­fit from space age tech­nolo­gies, al­low­ing them to in­crease yields and man­age crops more ef­fi­ciently.

Cosmos - - Digest - AN­GUS BEZZINA re­ports.

Map­ping our food from space will soon be the norm. Sci­en­tists from the Univer­sity of New Eng­land, in New South Wales, are test­ing satel­lite tech­nolo­gies as a way to track the health and growth of trop­i­cal tree crops, in­clud­ing av­o­ca­dos, man­goes, ma­cadamia and ba­nanas.

The sci­en­tists – An­drew Rob­son, Muham­mad Moshiur Rah­man and Jas­mine Muir from the Agri­cul­tural Re­mote Sens­ing Team within the univer­sity’s Pre­ci­sion Agri­cul­tural Re­search Group – are in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether satel­lite-based re­mote sens­ing tech­nol­ogy can pro­vide ac­cu­rate mea­sures of crop yield, fruit size and qual­ity.

If suc­cess­ful, grow­ers will have ac­cess to up-to-date pa­ram­e­ter-spe­cific maps within a grow­ing sea­son to help them iden­tify ar­eas per­form­ing poorly. This will al­low them to bet­ter man­age crop in­puts and make more in­formed de­ci­sions re­gard­ing har­vest sched­ul­ing.

At present, yield fore­cast­ing of tree crops such as av­o­cado is un­der­taken by count­ing the fruit of a small num­ber of trees, then ex­trap­o­lat­ing that fig­ure across the en­tire farm. An ini­tial eval­u­a­tion of satel­lite im­agery shows it to be more ac­cu­rate for both av­o­cado and ma­cadamia crops. Satel­lite im­agery shows dif­fer­ences in in­di­vid­ual tree health across an or­chard.

The UNE team, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Univer­sity of Queens­land, Univer­sity of Syd­ney, Cen­tral Queens­land Univer­sity and Queens­land De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries, is sam­pling mango, ba­nana, ma­cadamia and av­o­cado or­chards across four Aus­tralian states as part of a project funded by the fed­eral Ru­ral Re­search and De­vel­op­ment For Profit pro­gram and the grower-owned Hor­ti­cul­ture In­no­va­tion Aus­tralia.

The sci­en­tists use satel­lite im­agery, ground and air­borne sen­sors, to mea­sure the health or vigour of in­di­vid­ual tree canopies via their spec­tral char­ac­ter­is­tics. From this in­for­ma­tion, mea­sures such as the Nor­malised Dif­fer­ence Veg­e­ta­tion In­dex (NDVI), a scale com­monly used to de­ter­mine the amount of live green veg­e­ta­tion in a given area, is used to se­lect spe­cific trees for tar­geted field sam­pling. The vary­ing yield pa­ram­e­ters are cor­re­lated against ad­di­tional veg­e­ta­tion in­dices to iden­tify that which pro­duces the strong­est re­la­tion­ship.

For av­o­ca­dos in Bund­aberg, Queens­land, the team iden­ti­fied a cor­re­la­tion be­tween a num­ber of veg­e­ta­tion in­dices and fruit weight, both as tree yield and for in­di­vid­ual fruit. Th­ese re­sults are be­ing val­i­dated across other re­gions and across sea­sons. Satel­lite sens­ing might also en­able farm­ers to bet­ter de­ter­mine the qual­ity and ma­tu­rity of fruit across an or­chard. This will lead to greater ef­fi­cien­cies at har­vest time.

The strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween satel­lite im­agery and fruit size over three sea­sons al­lows grow­ers to adopt tar­geted har­vest­ing to pick only those ar­eas of an or­chard that bear large fruit.

Al­though fur­ther re­search is needed to val­i­date th­ese re­sults, if con­firmed the tech­nolo­gies in­ves­ti­gated through the en­tire project have the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise the Aus­tralian tree-crop­ping in­dus­try, and po­ten­tially other agri­cul­tural sec­tors as well.



Satel­lite imag­ing of an av­o­cado or­chard block.

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