A tough nut to crack? Personalised care for individual trees
While squirrels are often credited as hazelnuts’ number one fans, we humans aren’t shy of filling our cheeks. We consumed 424 000 tonnes of hazelnuts in 2018 alone. Consumers’ appetite for hazelnuts has forced producers to constantly re-evaluate their best practices in order to increase productivity, product quality and environmental sustainability. Nobody on the market escapes these concerns, not even big players. “In 2017, we met one of Ferrero’s senior agronomists,” says Andrea Gasparri, associate professor at Roma Tre University. “He told us about how orchards were managed and how difficult it was to monitor individual plants. All decisions were made by assessing the status of a few plants and extending treatments to the entire section, which was sometimes unnecessary or even counterproductive.” That’s when Gasparri and his team thought about building a set of terrestrial and aerial robots specifically for hazelnut farming operations, funded through the Horizon 2020 PANTHEON (Precision Farming of Hazelnut Orchards) project. Together, they would collect data and perform the likes of pruning, sucker detection and removal, irrigation, pest and disease detection, and yield estimation. Meanwhile, a network of internet of things (IoT) devices would collect environmental and meteorological measurements and send them to a central operative unit. Farmers could use the data to support their decisions and plan robotic actions accordingly. “It’s the equivalent of an industrial supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, but made specifically for hazelnut crops,” Gasparri explains. “Farmers can interact with the software interface, get an overview of the orchard health status and access details on each single plant. They have a dashboard with various widgets that they can simply access from a browser or directly in the field from a smartphone or tablet.” For example, one widget PANTHEON developed relates to pruning, and helps farmers manage interventions. They can access 3D interactive views of a tree, select specific branches to be cut and get information on the wood biomass that will be removed. Historical data can even be used to predict required operations or consolidate those from past seasons.
En route to commercial applications
Whilst this technology won’t be available tomorrow, the PANTHEON project has successfully proven both the feasibility of single plant level monitoring and the viability of autonomous robotic operations in orchards. As Gasparri remarks, “the idea of understanding and adapting to the needs of each single plant is not new but PANTHEON is the first project to develop a SCADA architecture for that purpose.” Amongst the project’s most important achievements are the development of an automated sucker management system, which calibrates the amount of herbicide to be sprayed based on individual plant needs, and advanced pruning protocols that suggest cuts according to the chosen plant training system. The project team successfully validated their findings in the commercial hazelnut orchards of the Azienda Agricola Vignola (website in Italian) – a specialised hazelnut farm located in Nepi, Italy. “As far as commercialisation plans are concerned, we believe that PANTHEON represents a milestone in hazelnut precision farming,” says Gasparri. “The midterm objective will now be to turn some of their solutions into scalable and commercial products. Sucker control and plant monitoring are two of the most time- and resource-demanding operations in today’s orchard management, so they could very well lead to market-ready, standalone products in the coming years,” Gasparri concludes.
PANTHEON, hazelnut, orchard, pest, disease, SCADA, robotic, precision farming, monitoring, IoT