New indoor cropping-focused project to work on smart solutions for managing horticultural crops

Image: Sally Tsoutas

A new A$6.8m industry-oriented collaboration is set to deliver smart new solutions for monitoring and managing horticultural crops in protected facilities ranging from polytunnels, glasshouses and vertical farms. 

The five-and-a-half year project will be led by researchers from Western Sydney University and is co-funded by the Commonwealth via the Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre. Other industry partners include the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Vertical Patch, Episteme Solutions and Rijk Zwaan.

It is aimed at addressing commercial challenges around labour costs, pollination, and diseases to support Australian growers by researching innovative and cost-effective solutions. 

Lead researcher Oula Ghannoum, from Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment and National Vegetable Protected Cropping Centre (NVPCC), said the research team will develop and test non-invasive ways to monitor key crop attributes such as yield; quality; stress; disease and pollination, providing foundation research that supports Australia’s expanding protected cropping sector in transitioning to advanced, high-tech decision support systems (DSS).

“Remote sensing is widely used in broadacre farming, through cameras and sensors attached to drones or gantries, but its application to highly managed and controlled facilities is still in its infancy,” said Ghannoum.

“The rapidly growing protected cropping industry faces multiple challenges related to the cost and training of skilled labour; limitations in capturing, integrating, storing, and processing data from various cameras and sensors; developing imaging platforms suitable for protected facilities; and training the model. The research aims to address these challenges by establishing a flexible decision support system.”

Innovation in protected cropping is part of a global priority to increase the sustainability and efficiency of food production systems challenged by urbanisation, population growth and climate change. However, most protected cropping related technologies to date have been developed for and tested in regions with temperate, cool or desert climates.

“Adapting new protected cropping technologies to subtropical and tropical climate conditions will reduce reliance on imported technology and has the potential to lower the cost of production for protected crops, bolster resilience in Australia’s domestic food supply chain, and increase our global competitiveness,” said David Tissue, from Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment.

“This project is taking a pragmatic approach to ‘smart’ greenhouse R&D in Australia, directing efforts toward practical, integrated solutions that meet local needs and cost structures, involving collaboration between plant scientists and industry professionals. 

Initially, the research team will test and develop cost-effective imaging and sensing solutions for near-real-time monitoring of crop growth, nutrition, health, fruit yield and quality in the NVPCC experimental glasshouse. 

Following the validation of solutions deemed most promising, trials will commence in commercial facilities including Vertical Patch’s high-tech indoor urban vertical farms in Sydney’s CBD and a large-scale vegetable production facility on the New South Wales Central Coast.

“The innovative solutions behind Vertical Patch’s technology lower the carbon footprint of farming practices, including decreasing water use and transportation time, utilising solar energy and making the most of unused spaces,” said Wayne Ford, chief executive of Vertical Patch.

“This partnership will capitalise on data collection and management, as well as optimising the light spectrum reaching plants, which is crucial for fully indoor vertical farming. The aim is to optimise our farm systems to maximise our supply of premium, hyper-local fresh produce to local restaurants and to export our farms and technology overseas.”