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Research collaboration cultivating growth in the Bay of Plenty

open this image in new window: GPS-it aerial mapping pod

A new type of research institute is collectively harnessing the power of AI in the Bay of Plenty’s key horticulture industries.

At a glance

  • PlantTech is a collaboration between business, academia and government to develop digital technologies in horticulture.

  • It will use the Bay of Plenty’s leading horticultural sectors such as kiwifruit and avocado to test the innovations.

  • The aim is to pool knowledge and apply deep AI expertise to common industry challenges.

  • The resulting technologies will be commercialised both locally and internationally.

A kiwifruit and an avocado are clearly not the same thing. But when it comes to the know-how underpinning new technologies in their industries the two fruits have more in common than you might think.

A consortium of eight Bay of Plenty horticulture sector companies has formed a new research institute which will pool common expertise and apply artificial intelligence (AI) to solving industry challenges.

PlantTech will use the region’s leading industries such as kiwifruit and avocado as a testing ground for the innovations. It is a three-way venture between business, academia and the government, a form of research institute that is common in Europe and North America but new to New Zealand, CEO Mark Begbie says.

The ultimate aim is to develop horticultural technologies that can be commercialised both nationally and globally, he says. “There has been a lot of work done on AI in areas such as self-driving cars, but that is a very different environment from plant-based growing systems.

“What companies are looking for from PlantTech is an organisation that can provide deep expertise in AI as it applies to a horticultural setting. Individually they don’t have the resources to develop that themselves, so there’s a shared endeavour there.”

PlantTech’s initial projects will focus on yield prediction and disease control, Begbie says.

“AI has the potential to add a great deal, covering a range of things from better techniques for identifying buds, flowers, and fruit in the orchard and giving better automated counts, through to giving improved predictions of what the yield should be.”

It will also use AI to better identify the early stages of a disease outbreak, so that a grower can assess the risk in a particular area or greenhouse and focus disease management techniques there.

The other side of the work is gathering the data needed to drive the AI from sensors and processes, and understanding plant biology and genetics. These are not PlantTech’s specialities, Begbie says.

“There’s no sense in us trying to replicate that. This is where we work with organisations such as Plant and Food Research and Lincoln Agritech to access the best expertise we can in how all of that behaves.”

It is hoped PlantTech’s research will lead to new products and services in markets as diverse as sports fields, hydroponics and primary land use. Another big part of its effort is in setting up the right processes and structures to capture the intellectual property (IP) being created, he says.

“We need to be able to work in a technology consultancy role where we’re receiving IP and protecting its integrity, and making sure it is transferred to the right partners so that our shareholders get the maximum benefit out of it.”

Kiwifruit picking robot

Partnering in the Bay

One of the founding companies is orchard mapping and data management company GPS-it. Managing Director and Founder Matt Flowerday says the advantage of PlantTech is that it can bring together the underpinning skills, data and functionality required to deliver these new technologies.

“It means it can be spread out around a number of sectors without that investment going in by each individual company multiple times,” he says.

GPS-it is at the point of scaling and expanding overseas and is busy building its own platforms to enable that. “There’s stuff you want to do but it’s a big research piece. If we can hook into what PlantTech is doing, that will allow us to focus on what we’re really good at.”

GPS-it has accessed support from Callaghan Innovation including Student and Growth Grants, joining overseas delegations and doing programmes such as Build for Speed.

Build for Speed in particular made the company really think about its development strategy and prepare to participate in initiatives such as PlantTech, Flowerday says.

Kiwifruit industry marketer Zespri is another partner in PlantTech, and Chief Innovation and Sustainability Officer Carol Ward is on the research institute’s board.

“We’ve got a multitude of research providers and this is about bringing PlantTech into this ecosystem, having it as one of the key providers particularly in this AI and digital space,” she says.

Some of the digital technologies now in use in agriculture and crop production haven’t been applied in horticulture yet, and it’s requiring new thinking. For example in the US agricultural equipment maker John Deere is using tractors to gather crop management data via GPS. “We have GPS challenges,” Ward says. “With kiwifruit often there’s a leaf canopy over the crop so that can interfere with the location signals.

“PlantTech is about saying, ‘can we work together with other like-minded companies who are also seeking these types of solutions, and collaborate to get some research grunt’.”

Zespri has also received Callaghan Innovation Student, Experience and Growth Grants, taken part in overseas delegations and completed programmes such as Driving Innovation.

“It’s really helped improve our understanding of how some of the new technologies can be applied within our sector and to our operation,” Ward says.

“I don’t think we would have been there with PlantTech if we hadn’t that Callaghan Innovation journey prior.”

Robotics Plus UGV

Callaghan Innovation backing

Callaghan Innovation’s agritech and digital sector teams support all of the member businesses through its Bay of Plenty Regional Business Partner. PlantTech’s research director Ian Yule will also take part in the Callaghan Innovation-led Agritech Robotics and Automation knowledge-building mission to Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, California in July.

“PlantTech is a fantastic regional collaboration initiative, especially in finding solutions around sharing IP,” Business Innovation Adviser Agritech Nicky Molloy says.

“Our technology is the secret ingredient of our food production, and New Zealand is the right place for powerful partnerships.” 

What is PlantTech?

PlantTech is a Regional Research Institute (RRI) charged with accelerating innovation in New Zealand’s premium crop growing environments through the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

It was established with the help of a $8.4 million investment from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and is a partnership between Western Bay of Plenty economic development agency Priority One, the University of Waikato, and eight local horticulture sector companies:

  • Bluelab - metering equipment manufacturer
  • Cucumber - decision support and automation solutions provider
  • GPS-it - orchard mapping systems and data management
  • Eurofins - fruit maturity monitoring
  • Plus Group - horticulture solutions provider
  • Trimax Mowing Systems - mowing equipment maker
  • Waka Digital - ICT consultancy
  • Zespri International - kiwifruit marketing

Updated: 11 June 2019