Farming for the Future

University of Waikato researchers showcased
some of their latest work at Fieldays 2018

From number 8-wired to hard-wired to hard coded, farms in New Zealand are now sophisticated businesses, with farmers increasingly making use of new technologies to improve profit and performance.

The theme for this year’s Fieldays at Mystery Creek was ‘The Future of Farming’ and at the University of Waikato’s stand in the main pavilion, our computer scientists and engineers showed the potential for computer science and electronic engineering to contribute to on-farm diagnostics and then, taking a refreshingly different perspective, introduced philosophy into the mix.

Researchers from the universities of Waikato and Canterbury and from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research are working together on a project that involves ‘big data’, training computers to recognise species of plants, insects and fungi. It’s an MBIE Smart Ideas project and once developed could speed-up the time it currently takes to identify insects and plants.

Dr Michael Cree and Associate Professor Eibe Frank are the Waikato researchers working on the project.

The research is based on the application of an artificial intelligence technique called ‘deep learning’, which refers to the way computers can learn to recognise complex patterns by implementing sophisticated algorithms that manipulate large networks of artificial neurons, arranged in multiple layers and feeding them with big quantities of annotated data.

Dr Cree says their work has even more relevance since brown marmorated stinkbugs were found in containers of used cars coming into New Zealand.

While the stink bug earned its name from its tendency to release an odour when disturbed or when crushed, many other insects share these same characteristics, including some species of ants, beetles and other bugs.

“It’s a perfect example of how our prototype based on deep neural networks [DNN] might be used,” he says.

Dr Vavara Vetrova, formerly at Waikato and Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research, is the lead on the project, currently in its research phase. She says once the prototype is developed, scientists will be able to seamlessly extend it to a group of new species of interest.

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has expressed interest in this research.

“Normally ‘deep learning’ requires large amounts of data to develop and train models. However, this is not the case in practice when obtaining labelled data is very costly.”
Dr Vavara Vetrova

MPI awarded eight doctoral scholarships at Fieldays, each worth up to $50,000, and Waikato student Thomas Corbett was presented with one of them by Associate Minister for Primary Industries Meka Whaitiri.

To help address a major environmental challenge – the impact changes to land and water use is having on the environment – Thomas is developing a nitrate/nitrite and phosphate sensor for freshwater that he hopes will be easy to use, accurate and affordable, to measure the impacts of run-off and leaching.

He says understanding the impacts is fundamental to the sustainability of primary production, and requires accurate measurements. The sensor will be based on the Diffusive Gradients in Thin Films (DGT) technique.

A DGT device comprises a small plastic container with an exposure window to solution of known area. In the container there are three layers: the filter membrane (which is at the solution boundary), diffusion layer, and the binding layer. Ions from a solution diffuse through the membrane and diffusion layer to a binding layer where the nutrient of interest is rapidly and irreversibly bound.

The DGT devices can be deployed for days to weeks – providing time-weighted average concentration of the nutrient. Getting an average concentration rather than a one-off sampling will provide a landowner with much greater certainty of hotspots of nutrient losses and allow targeted mitigation strategies.

Thomas’s research will be a combination of lab-based development of the DGT methodology and in-field testing. He will be working with Professor Louis Schipper, an environmental biogeochemist, environmental geochemist Dr Adam Hartland, inorganic chemist Professor Bill Henderson and a mentor from MPI.

Time-of-flight photography is increasingly being used in industry and electronic engineer Dr Lee Streeter says it has potential on farm and in food processing.

In 2015 Dr Streeter was awarded a $300,000 Marsden Fast Start grant to assist his research, and last year received a MBIE Smart Ideas grant of $950,000.

The cameras Dr Streeter uses are similar to ones used in gaming, but slightly more sophisticated. He works with Chronoptics in Hamilton, a company that began by using technology developed at the University of Waikato.

Dr Streeter talked about his research at Fieldays and the public got a chance to “play” with the cameras. He is working to accurately measure motion, once a source of error in time-of-flight range image photography.

Once measured, the error that motion causes is reparable, opening up new applications of moving objects for the cameras.

New technologies bring about new issues. Information that used to be stored in old arch-lever files on a shelf in the home-office is now stored on computers with the potential for hacking. On top of that, drones and other devices are increasingly being used on farm. Philosopher Dr Nick Munn studies the ethics of new technology, and the challenges technology generates for our existing ethical systems.

He says drones and biometric scanning are set to change the face of farming, and he can see the advantages for a farmer to be a first mover with this type of technology.

But perhaps even more challenging for farmers long term is the development of new foods, such as artificial meat and milk.

Dr Munn says before designing any legal standards or best-practice guidelines around drones and other new technologies, lawmakers would first need to determine the ethics of these new technologies and write laws that respect them.

Not exactly dinner-table conversation, but an important issue for beef and dairy farmers is NCD (neonatal calf diarrhoea). University of Waikato PhD student Gemma Lowe was awarded this year’s
National Agricultural Fieldays Sir Don Llewellyn Scholarship worth $22,000 to assist her study into the use of infrared thermography (IRT) for the early disease detection of NCD.

The disease typically affects calves during their first month of life, and the major challenge with NCD is that often by the time it’s diagnosed based on clinical signs, a substantial amount of damage has already occurred to the animal’s intestines, and in severe cases it’s often too late to save the affected animal.

IRT is a non-invasive method of detecting radiated heat, and so through investigating the thermal responses that occur at different anatomical regions of the calves in response to NCD, Gemma will be assessing the suitability of IRT as a non-invasive, automated method for early disease detection.

“A system like this would be a huge benefit to farmers, enabling diseased animals to be treated and isolated sooner to prevent the spread of NCD.”
Gemma Lowe

The Fieldays scholarship is awarded annually to a University of Waikato student whose research has a specific focus within the agri-sector. Gemma has already presented two papers on her research and will travel to Canada later in the year to present at the 2018 Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE): Ethology for Health and Welfare.

This year’s Fieldays at Mystery Creek marked the 50th anniversary of the event. Almost 131,000 people went through the gates.

An economic impact report, prepared by Dr Warren Hughes and Professor Frank Scrimgeour from the University of Waikato Management School’s Institute of Business Research, showcased the widespread impact Fieldays has had on the New Zealand economy since Fieldays began.

Using the attendance for each year as a scaling factor, the University of Waikato report outlined the total revenue contribution of Fieldays for the New Zealand economy over the last 49 years to be estimated at $18 billion in today’s economic value with the GDP contribution estimated at $8 billion.

The report also outlined the impact Fieldays has on employment with an estimated 2340 jobs created in 2017 – 900 of them created in the Waikato alone.

The economists also estimated that exhibitors experienced a 10% impact from exhibiting at Fieldays, with the current brand value of the Fieldays platform standing at $465 million.