Experimental AI lends a helping hand to fruit growers

Japanese researchers have conducted experiments using robotics and artificial intelligence to reduce the dependence of fruit growers on scarce labor while supporting those who are aging and have no successor.

Trials are underway in Chiba Prefecture, a major Japanese pear-producing area near Tokyo, and Yamanashi Prefecture, the country’s main wine region, in central Japan.

The photo provided shows the screen display as viewed using “SmartGlass” glasses. (Photo courtesy of Professor Mao Xiaoyang of Yamanashi University) (Kyodo)

In the spring of this year, a consortium made up of the Chiba Prefecture government, agricultural cooperatives and other businesses launched a two-year experimental project on pear farms in the towns of Ichikawa and Narita.

According to Tokyo-based consulting firm NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting Inc., which oversees the experiments, a robotic cargo vehicle automatically follows workers as they harvest the pears, transporting the fruit to a designated location.

An integrated camera takes photos of the pre-picked pears and surrounding foliage, the AI ​​analyzes the data and provides information on the best time to harvest the fruits based on their growth.

“The age will come when AI-controlled technology will be able to perform complicated manual tasks such as pollination and bagging fruit,” said an expert in the field.

The consortium has also developed an app that is being tested to see how it can help prevent leaf blight caused by a fungus, which attacks the leaves, fruits and stems of pears. Sensors installed in pear trees collect weather data, such as temperature and precipitation, and recommend the appropriate amount of pesticides to ward off the disease.

The robots reduce “our physical burden,” said Toshiharu Itabashi, the eighth-generation owner of Yamani Kaju Noen, the farm where the experiment is being conducted. “As we are troubled by fruit diseases every year, the AI ​​projections are very useful.”

An unprecedented increase in weather events in recent years, mostly due to global warming, has made it extremely difficult even for experienced growers to predict crop growth, said Itabashi, 63.

“By taking advantage of this advanced technology, I hope to protect this farm so that it can continue to operate for generations to come. “

According to the Chiba Prefecture government, while domestic demand for pears remains stable, the market is expected to expand with more exports to Southeast Asia and other regions. “We hope that agricultural extension (based on AI) will help maintain production,” an official said.

A farmer examines the grapes using “SmartGlass” glasses. (Photo courtesy of Professor Mao Xiaoyang of Yamanashi University) (Kyodo)

In 2019, a research team from the Faculty of Engineering at Yamanashi University, led by Professor Mao Xiaoyang, developed a device capable of performing what is called berry thinning in which the bunches of grapes are removed to leave room for those that remain to grow. bigger.

When a farmer, wearing glasses with a small camera attached, approaches a bunch of grapes, the AI ​​estimates the number of berries in each bunch and highlights which ones need to be removed.

An application had already been developed to estimate the number of berries when the grapes are placed in a special container, but the new device, called “SmartGlass”, is even more user-friendly because it allows a person to use both hands to thin Grapes. , as requested by the producers, Mao said.

By adding improvements such as clearer visibility and improved bezel accuracy, the team aims to deliver a commercially viable device soon.

Fruit production is considered more difficult for inexperienced farmers than growing vegetables.

Vegetables take several months to grow before harvest, but trees can take years to transition from saplings to an age when they produce fruit, says Shinnosuke Kusaba of the National Organization’s Institute of Fruit Tree and Tea Science. agriculture and food research in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

He is cautiously optimistic about the use of agricultural AI technology.

“The use of (AI-based) agriculture will encourage new inputs. But cost reductions and improved usability are still needed for its practical application,” Kusaba said.

The photo provided shows a sensor installed on a pear tree. (Photo courtesy of Chiba Prefecture pear cultivation consortium) (Kyodo)

The photo provided shows a robotic cargo vehicle carrying fruit. (Photo courtesy of Chiba Prefecture pear cultivation consortium) (Kyodo)

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