Data scientists at the University of Aberdeen are teaming up with fruit growers to build an artificial intelligence (AI) system to forecast harvests, which could potentially save the industry millions each year.
The machine learning system for soft fruit yield forecasting is a three-year collaboration involving the University, Scotland’s innovation centre for data and AI The Data Lab, and Arbroath-based Angus Soft Fruits Ltd.
It aims to better harness key information such as historical yield and weather data, weather forecasts and satellite imaging, and expert knowledge from growers, to develop algorithms that accurately forecast production and measure uncertainty.
With an estimated annual production of more than 2,900 tonnes of raspberries and 25,000 tonnes of strawberries, inaccurate yield forecasting costs Scotland’s fruit growers millions each year.
The development of an intelligent and inexpensive forecasting system could prove crucial in ensuring profitability for growers, leading to more efficiencies in sales and packing and transport planning, while enhancing their reputation with customers and limiting food waste and associated carbon emissions.
Georgios Leontidis, Director of the University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Data and Artificial Intelligence, said: “We are delighted to team up with Angus Soft Fruits Ltd and The Data Lab in this exciting project that could prove to be a game-changer for an industry worth millions to Scotland’s economy.
“Over the three-year lifespan of this project we will work with growers to understand the flaws in current forecasting systems, develop advanced machine learning models that harness high quality data, and seek expert input from growers that can further enhance these models.
“The ultimate aim is to produce an inexpensive yield forecasting system that brings all of this high-quality data together, providing maximum advantage for growers and helping them to stay in profit and protect jobs.”
Jan Redpath, Technical Director of Angus Soft Fruits Ltd commented: “The berry market has matured in recent years, and with it the margins have become much tighter. Growers are therefore going out of the business of fruit production.
“On the one hand we have soaring costs in particular labour and fertilisers, and on the other our biggest ability to influence price comes from being able to accurately match supply with demand, or at least to better pre-empt the scale and timing of flushes and dips in crop production.
“Competitive advantage is gained from producing a stream of new varieties. However, with new varieties comes new crop results and there is no historical prediction data to rely on to forecast future yields.
“Research into more accurate forecasting is required more than ever, and we are excited to work with the University and The Data Lab on what we see as a vitally important project, that has the potential to bring lasting benefits to our growers.”
Heather Thomson, Head of Skills at The Data Lab, said: “Data is a hugely valuable and often untapped resource that, if used correctly, can help businesses improve processes and create much-needed efficiencies. This project is just one of many different PhD and EngD studentships we fund through our Industrial Doctorates Programme, which is helping to digitally transform Scotland’s economy.
“The farming sector is ripe for this type of digitally led transformation, with the ultimate aim of helping farmers increase yields whilst limiting waste and their impact on the environment. It is more important than ever to better understand crop performance and increase competitiveness for commercial advantage. AI will play a significant role in this and projects like this one will reinforce Scotland as a leader in implementing innovative AI solutions.”