2022 Virtual Orchard Meet-up Series – Webinar 4

Technology – Expert Panel

Q1. All experts were asked to introduce themselves and go over what technologies they have worked on.

Ines Hanrahan, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission

Ines introduced herself as the Executive Director at the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC), along with a commercial tree fruit grower. The WTFRC have focused on 3 key themes:

  • Smart Orchard Development
    • Started 2 years ago to allow companies to trial their equipment, compare to one another, and allow scientists to test experimental trials. This has been extremely important regarding sensor technology and has enabled commercialization of digitalization in the orchard.The orchard has also become a teaching orchard for students and orchardists.
    • The orchard has brought to attention the importance of synchronizing data intake and consolidate everything on a dashboard for ease of use and interpretation.
  • International Collaboration
    • Technology adaptation cycles are faster than they used to be, where researchers, companies, growers, extensionists etc., should all be involved from the beginning.Ines stated that an example of this is the substantial cost that private companies incur to develop harvest robots, where they could cost $50-100 million from the time of inception to commercial release. Involvement of various stakeholders has the potential to increase funding opportunities, decrease the knowledge gap and enable grower participation.
    • WTFRC has partnered with international companies to further progress technologies available for American growers.
  • Harvest Robots
    • WSTFRC has had harvest robot prototypes tested in the harvest season of 2022.There isn’t any information regarding commercial release for them, but Ines stated that the technology is significantly further along than 5 years ago.
    • She stressed the importance of cost, the ability for the machine to work for 80 days straight, and to pick at rate that can amortize itself.

Yu Jiang, Cornell University

Yu introduced himself as an assistant professor at Cornell University, where he has focused on agriculture sensing, robotics and AI technologies in specialty crops. During Yu’s introduction he noted the importance of the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) where they have started an integrated approach for multiple disciplines to develop technology together. CIDA has 4 areas of interest including systems analytics, outreach & application, digital innovation and finally discovery & design. A similar concept is through Cornell’s OneAg approach, which is illustrated below (Figure 2).

Figure 2. OneAg illustration (Yu Jiang, Cornell)

Long He, Pennsylvania State University

Long introduced himself as an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, where has focused on robotics and automated technologies in tree fruit systems. His projects encompass green fruitlet thinning, robotic approaches to pollination, precision crop load management, precision and automated irrigation, along with intelligent spraying systems. Figures 3 and 4 demonstrate some of the work Long has worked on.

Figure 3. (a) picture showing AI system detection of flowers/king bloom (Long He, Pennsylvania)
Figure 3. (b) picture showing AI system detection flower clusters and flower development (Long He, Pennsylvania)
Figure 4. (a) picture showing AI system detection of fruit and stem (Long He, Pennsylvania)
Figure 4. (b) picture showing AI system detection for fruit orientation and identification (Long He, Pennsylvania)

Matthew Whiting, Washington State University

Matthew introduced himself as a professor and extension specialist at Washington State University (WSU), where has expertise in tree physiology, precision, and automated agricultural systems. During his time at WSU, he has developed relationships with various stakeholder and emphasized the importance of connections at beginning stages of any project. He broke down 4 strategies to develop a successful project:

  1. Take a total systems approach, include economics, sociology, engineering, horticulture, molecular biology, breeding/genetics, postharvest etc.
  2. Consider scalability
  3. Avoid costly, single-use tools
  4. Don’t plant another orchard – unless you are thinking 10-15 years into the future

Q2. What has limited adoption of technologies at the commercial level?

Matthew stated that there is a significant transition time with technologies, for example high-density orchard systems. Long stated that growers rely on success stories of technology that are cost effective, Yu agreed and added that the significant upfront cost of new technologies deters growers. Ines stated that grower to grower talk counts more than scientific data, but once a new technology is in the system growers learn quickly and adapt accordingly. This has been successful in the past when utilizing a stepwise approach. She also stated that businesses that have great customer support have been the most successful. And in closing Ines said that growers rely on new technology but look at it from a cost-benefit approach, they want to see it via workshops, demonstrations and through other growers before making decisions. Overall, experts stated that technology advancement takes time for growers to acclimate and costs a significant amount.

Q3. How do you know that you are targeting the needs of growers/industry?

In a well-rounded response, Matthew stated that including industry from the beginning of a project aid in concept development. Partnering with commercial entities is good and encouraged, but all stakeholders should know each other’s objectives. Matthew then added that building consortiums and commissions also adds extreme value to get industry and growers involved.

Q4. Are there any concerns for safety for autonomous sprayers? What considerations should growers and operators be thinking about?

Ines and Matthew have first-hand knowledge of working with autonomous sprayers. Ines stated the importance of addressing the ‘fear factor’ that growers may face due to the legislation when adopting these technologies. She has had a proactive approach and worked with the State Department of Agriculture, as they had put out statements regarding autonomous vehicles. She said that working with the government body in a partner compacity has aided in adaptation and study of autonomous sprayers and allowed for a proactive approach within the industry. Matthew added that occupational health and safety personnel should be included in any project that may impact worker safety.

Q5. What should we say to people who are fearful of losing their jobs when adopting new technologies?

Although people may think they would lose their positions, technologies are adapted to make everyone’s jobs a bit easier and more pleasurable, stated Ines. She also added that many technologies are made to take out back breaking work and enable for year-round employment.  Yu added that technologies would have to be maintained and therefore people would have to be trained to keep the data driven systems in operation, this in turn could create more jobs and allow for better opportunities to utilize skills and knowledge in the orchard. He also suggested that a digital agriculture certification, for people with mechanical and automation skills, could allow for more specialized hires on farm.

Q6. Do you have any final takeaway messages?

Ines wanted to reiterate that every farmer is a data miner – whether that be on a piece of paper, in their head or in excel sheets. Rather than relying on paper and excel sheets, tools have been made to make informed decisions easier for growers. Ines stressed the importance of adopting these tools to aid in orchard decisions, but also added that farmers should never lose their green thumb, as with the ever-changing environment, plants evolve, and so must we.

Yu added that things in the apple industry are being developed by passionate people, which could lead to a brighter future.

Long stated that growers are always interested in technology and having a decision support tool, such as sensors, apps, camera systems etc. decrease human effort for the longterm. Currently we are between manual and robotic systems, i.e. human assisted platforms, which is a significant step forward, although to fully transition there must be extension involved to aid in information and knowledge.

Matthew stated that people are the most important when thinking about orchard systems, especially when developing any technology. Technology coming into the industry is inevitable and it is just beginning to take off. The best way to successfully advance a technology is to collaborate, get feedback from growers and stakeholders, and take a whole systems approach.