New high-tech horticultural hub set to boost sector’s productivity

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HICRIS, a new hub for high-tech horticultural systems at The University of Sydney's ACFR, aims to advance the productivity and efficiency of Australian horticulture.
HICRIS, a new hub for high-tech horticultural systems at The University of Sydney's ACFR, aims to advance the productivity and efficiency of Australian horticulture.
The University of Sydney

On 6 October 2016, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Senator Anne Ruston officially opened the nation’s first learning and development hub for horticultural robotics at The University of Sydney.

The new Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (HICRIS), which will be sited within the University’s acclaimed Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR), will become a national hub for horticulture robotics, Senator Ruston said.

“A future generation of students will be trained right here and will take their place as leaders in the horticulture industry, and researchers here will oversee the creation of world-leading technological advancements,” she said.

“The centre will support the horticulture industry in defining and monitoring its strategic objectives around robotics and related technologies, and provide opportunities to interact with other agricultural industries interested in robotics.”

The Australian Centre for Field Robotics' Ladybird robot in action in a beetroot field, Cowra, NSW.
The Australian Centre for Field Robotics' Ladybird robot in action in a beetroot field, Cowra, NSW.
Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at The University of Sydney.

HICRIS projects set to boost on-farm efficiency

Work at the new centre will include, but won’t be limited to, developing technology with the capacity to detect foreign matter; robots able to map tree-crop architecture; and cutting-edge autonomous systems for identifying and eradicating weeds. HICRIS researchers will also explore potential capabilities such as automated crop forecasting to predict best times to harvest and ground-penetrating radar sensors to measure attributes such as soil moisture content and root system development.

Initially, the new hub will host three major projects in robotics and autonomous technology to increase farm efficiencies: 

  • robotics project Evaluating and testing autonomous systems developed in Australian vegetable production systems, will involve designing, building, demonstrating and evaluating robotic platforms and technologies for different farming operations across varied growing regions in order to prove operational effectiveness;
  • decision-support project Using autonomous systems to guide vegetable decision-making on-farm, which will further develop technologies to reduce production costs and increase on farm productivity in the vegetable industry, in particular Brassica, Lettuce and Baby Leaf; and
  • monitoring project Multi-scale monitoring tools for managing Australian tree crops – Industry meets innovation.

The projects will be funded by Horticulture Innovation to the tune of around $9.5 million.

ACFR robots in a Victorian apple orchard.
ACFR robots in a Victorian apple orchard.
Peter Underwood

Preparing for a high-tech future in horticulture

Minister Ruston said the new projects will build on previous work by the ACFR that developed a robotic system for horticulture known as ‘Ladybird’ – an engineering prototype that has been deployed successfully on-farm to demonstrate crop-related intelligence and crop manipulation. 

ACFR, helmed by Professor Salah Sukkarieh, a leading expert in the field of precision agriculture, is also working on data-collecting drones and other autonomous ag-bots that perform an array of production-related tasks, including the RIPPA, Mantis and Shrimp. 

"I know there will be many more in the years to come,” Minister Ruston said. 

“All industries now face an increasingly fast-paced technological landscape. Horticulture is certainly no exception. 

“The results of the work you do here will have broad-reaching benefits for Australian horticultural industries—they will benefit from improved information about production, more precise application of inputs, increased productivity and ultimately, reduced costs and higher returns at the farm gate.” 

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