They are a perfect solar engine. Tomatoes grown by Costa Group in glasshouses at Guyra are now robotically pollinated, improving fertility and production using the latest technology from Israeli company, Arugga AI.
Costa Group's head grower technical research and development at Guyra is Tal Kanety, and he says the use of Arugga ground robots initially to pollinate tomatoes will lead to improved crop performance, forecasting methods, and individual plant analysis in the glasshouses.
He said despite many hurdles caused by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Costa's Guyra glasshouses now lease 17 robotic pollinators. The company will soon have 20 of the units patrolling the long rows of vines that are grown under 20 hectares of glasshouse on the edge of the town.
Mr Kanety said three types of tomatoes are produced in the glasshouse: Cocktail, Snacking (mini cherry) and large Truss varieties.
The need for robotic pollination is that tomatoes are a self-pollinated species, and the most efficient natural pollinator is the bumblebee, which is not permitted to be imported or used for crop pollination in Australia.
Until the arrival of the Arugga robots, pollination was done manually with multiple passes along the vines each week using a pollinating wand. Now, the robots are supervised by just one staff member with a tablet, and they use water pipes originally designed as winter heating conduits as the tracks along which the robots move.
Mr Kanety said Costa was proud to be the first company to commercialise a robot that replicates bumblebee buzz pollination in tomato glasshouses and is one the most significant users of the robots in the world.
"We are on a continuous journey with the robots. They continue to gain speed and insight," Mr Kanety said.
He said solving the pollination action was the big challenge; next, having the robots move autonomously between rows would be easier. Information from the robots is transferred directly to the Cloud for analysis by technical and growing staff.
The relationship with Arugga began in 2017. Costa had recognised that to be an industry and technology leader in this highly competitive sector it had to explore this path.
The robots have four small modules with a camera, and adjacent to the lens is a jet that sends pulses of compressed air to move the pollen around the plants.
The lens can also capture information about the health and potential yield of the tomato plants. This includes stem thickness, flowers, and fruit count, subject to measurement by the robots' all-seeing eyes.
The plants grow up to 30cm a week and live for 12 months, reaching a length of 15 to 20 metres.
As the stem grows, staff remove the vegetation from the base of the stem and train it horizontally while the flowering crowns are allowed to grow towards the transparent roof.
Guyra's elevation is 1330m and the town is known for its brisk winter environment and cold but sunny winter days.
These environs are exactly the drawcard for Costa to build their glasshouses. During winter, Guyra has more extended daylight than most other areas in the country.
To ensure the interior of the glasshouses holds back the winter chills, boilers heat water that circulates in pipes between the rows that work like rails to support the scissors-lifts, which workers use to tend to plants.
The glasshouses also act as water catchments for the hydroponic growing systems. In a rainfall event of five millimetres, the company can harvest one megalitre of water.
Water and fertiliser flowing through the root systems of the plants are recycled, providing another saving.
Staggered planting ensures a year-round supply of tomatoes, and the vines are harvested two times a week.
In total, there are 40ha of glasshouses and a 2.5ha nursery at the two Guyra locations, which employ more than 650 staff, with about 48 nationalities represented on the team.
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