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Cambridge start-up helping apple growers predict crops

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A Cambridge-based agritech start-up, is using drones to help apple producers improve yield predications.

Outfield Technologies is using a combination of drone technology, 3D computer imagery and artificial intelligence. By examining trees from 30 metres above ground in summer, about eight weeks from harvest, the drones’ high-resolution cameras and computer analysis of the photos provide a far better estimate of crop yield in September or October.

“Even a day before harvest, a producer will only know the yield with about 80 per cent accuracy,” says Outfield co-founder and commercial director Jim McDougall. “Producers sell their crop well in advance, so they have to undersell by 20 per cent to ensure they can meet their commitments.”

The company has won several grants, including £95,000 of a larger £575,000 crop-maximisation grant from government agency Innovate UK, and is currently working with partners including NIAB, Worldwide Fruit, and Hutchinson. The Innovate UK grant is focused on drone-based analysis of apple blossom at an early stage to guide the application of spray blossom-thinning chemicals more precisely.

“We’re trying to resolve a problem that apple growers have in the UK and all around the world,” adds Charles Whitfield, Crop Protection Engineer at NIAB. “In a single apple orchard you get a lot of variation in neighbouring trees, so one tree might yield 50 kilograms of apples and the tree right next to it might only yield a few kilos. Growers who average out yield over the orchard may not notice, but we’re trying to smooth out those differences by targeting individual trees to receive the right amount of blossom-thinning agents.”

 

Photo credit: Outfield Technologies

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