High tech sensors spot the sweetest peaches

How do you know if a peach is sweet without taking a bite? That is the challenge for researchers working on new hand-held sensing technology to measure the sweetness of any peach you point it at – and any nectarine, plum or apricot too, for that matter.

The device is one of three technologies being developed and tested in a new project recently launched by Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

Sensors for Summerfruit is a 2.5-year $1.1 million Food Agility CRC project led by Agriculture Victoria in collaboration with RMIT University, Summerfruit Australia and Australian technology companies, Green Atlas and Rubens Technologies.

Food Agility CRC Chief Scientist Professor David Lamb says the ultimate goal of the project is to help growers get the right piece of fruit to the right consumer at the right time.

“From orchard to export, data-driven decisions are key. Two of the sensors, RMIT’s Bistatic LiDAR (Light detection and ranging) and Green Atlas’ Cartographer, will operate in the orchard helping assess health status and predict fruit size, yield and maturity,” Professor Lamb said.

“A third sensor, Rubens Fluorescent Spectrometer, will be put to work in the packing sheds to detect sweetness, firmness and robustness for transport. It’s the closest thing to tasting the fruit, without actually taking a bite.”

The sensors will be calibrated on Agriculture Victoria’s Tatura SmartFarm in the Goulburn Valley, and then road-tested in commercial orchards and packhouses in Goulburn Valley, Swan Hill, Cobram, and Sunraysia.

Research leader crop physiology at Agriculture Victoria Dr Ian Goodwin said the project aimed to benefit the summer fruit sector by growing export markets and improving their operations.

“Fruit is downgraded or redirected at the harvesting and packing stages because it doesn’t meet consumer preferences for that market, or if fruit is harvested too early or too late, the quality can deteriorate in transit,” Dr Goodwin said.

“Using these sensors, we could help growers tailor their practices to grow the fruit consumers want, triaging fruit in the packing sheds, and only exporting those robust enough to make the journey.”

Summerfruit Australia CEO Trevor Ranford said the project would focus on the Chinese market but would ultimately be relevant to any export market for Australian stone fruit.

“We have spent years improving our understanding of consumer preferences,” Mr Ranford said. “For example, when it comes to nectarines, our Chinese consumers prefer yellow nectarines that are sweet and low in acid, with a redder skin colour.

“This depth of consumer understanding has seen Australian Summerfruit exports increase annually by an average 12 per cent for the last 10 years. In the 2019/20 season alone the industry exported over 21,000 tonnes of stone fruit worth $89.11 million.

“This project takes it to the next level, helping us refine those requirements and make decisions along the supply chain to grow high-quality fruit that looks, tastes and feels perfect to Chinese consumers and consumers in more than 40 other export markets,” Mr Ranford said.

Professor Roberto Sabatini – Chair of the Cyber-Physical and Autonomous Systems Group at RMIT University said, “This project presents an exciting opportunity to demonstrate that our remote sensing and early diagnosis technologies are cost-effective, impactful and scalable, both within and beyond the agriculture industry.

“Cyber-physical systems, sensor networks and data fusion technologies are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence to maximise business performance, profitability and sustainability in all sectors driving the digital transformation here in Australia and globally.”

Meanwhile, Rubens Technologies founder, Daniel Pelliccia said, “Our aim is to help farmers grow the ‘perfect plum’. Growers need to be able to identify the right harvest timing for optimum quality, but that's just the beginning.

“A plum may taste fantastic at harvest time, but is it robust enough to make the journey from Victoria to a market in Beijing? Our fluorescence spectrometer technology has the potential to give growers a fast answer without damaging the fruit.”  

Founder of Green Atlas, Steve Scheding said their technology is currently in use in apple, almond, kiwifruit, wine grape, avocado and cherry orchards around the world.

“This project elevates our offering, by testing how well we can measure not only the yield of flowers, fruitlets and fruit in an orchard, but also the size and colour of the fruit,” Mr Scheding said. “We are excited to demonstrate how the Cartographer can benefit Summerfruit growers.”

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