New Zealand’s Vision for Agricultural Robotics
By Nicky Molloy, Business Innovation Manager - Agritech, Callaghan Innovation
Labour, productivity and sustainability are the most significant global issues in the agriculture sector today. In New Zealand, with COVID-19 resulting in closed borders, this has escalated the need for greater automated solutions within orchards and farms. New Zealand understands that it can’t solve these issues on its own and is joining forces globally to accelerate the pace of change.
Finding opportunities out of crisis
The current pandemic crisis facing the world has created both 'dangers' and 'opportunity' locally and globally, including:
- Closed borders
- Food insecurity
- Labour shortages
- A fragmented supply chain
These are on top of the issues we were already grappling with:
- Climate change
- The need to grow food more productively and sustainably
- Food safety
- Creating more high-value and more meaningful jobs for people
Growing the economy can no longer come at the expense of the people and places we live in, and technology plays a pivotal role in enabling growth in high-value agriculture through targeted agricultural technology (agritech) and robotic solutions.
New Zealand’s unique combination of tech knowledge, resources, collective research and development capabilities, cross-industry collaboration, and a well-supported ecosystem allows it to grow high value food products using world-leading technology.
By embracing this opportunity and, with the support and backing of the New Zealand Government, New Zealand is positioning itself to be a global leader in specialised agritech solutions that are not only good for New Zealand, but good for the world. New Zealand is building relationships with global partners, including FIRA, to better connect these agritech solutions to the world.
New Zealand’s innovative food producers are leading the way in the production of premium food products, and showing that agriculture automation needs to take a fully integrated approach. This starts with plant genetics, in the development of new growing and production systems. New Zealand's orchards, vineyards, farms and forests are building new food and fibre production systems and, in doing so, preparing forautomated harvesting options as they become available.
New plant genetics not only produce the best tasting fruit and vegetables but also present new growing varieties that can be more easily harvested. Growing structures, growing systems and the technology to support the year-round monitoring and measuring of plants are rapidly developing, and harvesting technology is catching up.
Fruit and Vegetable Robotics
Our research in plant genetics has been pivotal for our food industry. We grow just about every fruit and vegetable crop in New Zealand, and the size or our horticulture industry enables us to be nimble to change. With agritech solutions rapidly developing across a complex technology stack, we not only understand the tech but the challenges of the outdoor environment that technology must perform in, to ensure we deliver a premium product to market.
Technology developed by New Zealand companies include BBCTech/TOMRA in the packhouse technology space, Robotics Plus in labour-intensive apple harvesting and packing, CR Automation’s post harvest fruit washing, sorting, tracking and storage solutions, and Hortworx’s fruit bin filling technology. These organisations partnered with growers to understand key pain points and create solutions that will scale locally and globally.
We are now starting to see this automation capability moving out into the field. Robotics Plus, GreenTech Robotics and platform providers like Rocos are offering solutions globally, with initiatives to drive new emerging players onto the international scene in coming years.
Dairy and Pasture Robotics
New Zealand’s strong growth in dairy and the implementation of on-farm robotics and automation has created a raft of technology solutions, including:
- Pasture management with electric fencing by Gallagher
- Milk measurement using the Milk Meter by Waikato Milking Systems
- Animal weighing by Tru-Test
- AllFlex animal tagging
- LIC dairy genetics
- Milking sheds with fully automated milking systems,
- Robotic Teatwand
- Facial recognition of animals measuring and monitoring health.
The emergence of autonomous platforms and a nearly fully autonomous farm with technology being led by Halter, means the world of farming is changing. Improved farming practices and environmental regulations have also driven environmental innovation with companies like Pastoral Robotics.
New Zealand’s Advantages
New Zealand has always been a country of imaginative thinkers and innovative creators. We’re well-connected, and can quickly bring together highly skilled teams, supported by government funding, to drive commercial outcomes. It is this “Team New Zealand” approach that is the key to creating and delivering sustainable results in the future.
Being surrounded by vast oceans, and blessed with a natural environment that encompasses everything from high mountain ranges and fjords to flat arable land, New Zealand offers a unique testbed to experiment in, and a growing calendar that is counter-seasonal to the Northern Hemisphere, allowing for two test seasons per year. This can enable agritech improvements to move at a rapid pace.
New Zealand’s reputation for producing high-value food, and leading innovation throughout the supply chain, has enabled us to command a premium for our fruit and vegetables globally. New Zealand apples and kiwifruit have international reputations for taste and consistency, thanks to decades of collaboration between growers, plant scientists, food processors and packagers, and the supply chain - ensuring the distance travelled is no barrier to quality.
Our R&D and Investment Ecosystem
Given our size, New Zealand has an impressive array of horticulture technology companies and research organisations, and our globally competitive technology innovators have carved out valuable niches in their chosen areas of expertise. Of the seven Government-owned Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), AgResearch and Plant & Food Research play a key role in delivering new knowledge and technology to support the sector. Most universities run their own commercialisation companies, including Lincoln Agritech, UniServices, and KiwiNet.In the private sector the Bragato Research Institute drives world-leading innovation for the New Zealand wine industry, while the Cawthron Institute supports sustainable development of primary industries in New Zealand, and worldwide. PlantTech’s research into robotics, autonomous systems and AI for plant-based value chains helps industry get a high-tech productivity boost.
Our investment ecosystem has also developed a pipeline of specialist incubators, like Sprout, focused on helping entrepreneurs grow global agritech and foodtech businesses. Their investment partners Finistere Ventures recently partnered with the government-established New Zealand Growth Capital Partners (NZGCP) to launch a NZD$40 million fund investing in VC-ready agriculture, food and sustainability opportunities, and an established Angel investor network continues to support early-stage companies as they attempt to scale.
Developing Global Partnerships
Callaghan Innovation is the New Zealand Government’s innovation agency and works with our industry body, Agritech New Zealand, to support the agritech sector. Together we have led innovation missions to the United States, UK, Ireland and Australia. It is through visiting and learning from organisations including Western Growers, one of the largest growers organisations in North America, and talking with their leading growers, that this valuable partnership was formed.
New Zealand horticulture technology companies and researchers were identified asworld-leading, and it was clear that New Zealand has the capability, expertise and attitude to take a world leadership role. In February New Zealand was invited to be part of Western Growers’ Global Harvesting Initiative, presenting on harvest technology, alongside Israel, the UK, France, and Australia.
We see New Zealand agritech solutions as not only good for New Zealand but great for the world. As we look to drive greater agritech solutions from New Zealand, and as borders start to open, we invite you to explore what we offer within our thriving ecosystem, and join us as we innovate in our fields and paddocks.