Plant-disease-detecting robot created at University of Guelph

Finding disease symptoms before humans can see them could put an early stop to spread

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A smart robot with disease detection, plant monitoring and labour-saving capabilities is in the works for Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable sector. The Guelph Intelligent Greenhouse Automation System (GIGAS) is an integrated robotics system under development by the University of Guelph to automate some of the most labour intensive greenhouse tasks.

Why it matters: As labour becomes more challenging to find in agriculture, automation can help manage some on-farm processes.

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The system had its start as a robot to harvest produce and remove leaves from plants. An early prototype was armed with visioning technology that allowed it to identify produce ripe for harvest and a special gripper that let it pluck fruit from the vines without damaging it.

Feedback from stakeholders including Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has led project lead Prof. Medhat Moussa of the School of Engineering to expand GIGAS to include disease scouting and plant growth monitoring.

“We are still looking at de-leafing, harvesting and automating labour intensive steps, but we have also moved to disease detection and data collection and giving that data back to growers to help them optimize their operations,” says Moussa.

His current prototype is a greenhouse scouting robot that searches for early signs of plant disease. Not only can the robot detect symptoms not yet visible to humans, but it can be scouting constantly whereas a grower might only get to every spot in a greenhouse once every week or two.

While it’s scouting, it’s also learning so it can become better and smarter at detecting problems and will alert growers to any anomalies it finds so a human scout can follow up to pay more in-depth attention to potential hotspots or problem areas.

As it photographs plants on its patrols through the greenhouse, the robot also collects data and assesses whether a plant is growing well or is getting enough water, for example – information the grower can then use to optimize growing conditions right at the plant level instead of the more traditional canopy level approach.

For OGVG, improving crop protection and reducing labour costs are key priorities, and the organization sees automation playing a role in growers being able to do those things better.

“Labour remains a substantial part of greenhouse operations and with minimum wage taking a $3 jump at once, that impacted growers heavily in an immediate way,” says OGVG Science Coordinator Niki Bennett. “We are also interested in Integrated Pest Management and scouting – looking for green bugs on green leaves can be tedious and it’s easy for people to miss things, but that’s a perfect situation for robots and the human just needs to be there to make sense of what the robot does.”

GIGAS isn’t available on the market yet, but Moussa is hopeful some early trials could get underway in about six months. The robot will be slightly different for each greenhouse vegetable crop – Ontario’s three major ones are cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers – and will have to continue to adapt as diseases keep changing.

OGVG’s approach to automation is evolving as well, according to Bennett, who says the organization is now working on an automation strategy to focus on sector needs instead of investing in individual technologies.

“We will focus on the direction growers say they need help in. It’s a dynamic space and the solutions needed for smaller farms are not necessarily the same as for larger farms,” she says. “As pressures change, the challenge in finding a workforce will steer us more towards what can be automated.”

Moussa is looking outside of the University of Guelph for funding for a start-up while he continues ongoing R&D and field trials so GIGAS can be brought to market. His current work is funded through the national AgriScience research cluster for horticulture, OGVG and the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association.

“Four to five years down the road you will see a whole lot of technology in greenhouses, whether because labour is high or because consumers want more info about food that they are eating,” Moussa predicts.

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