Opportunities galore in agritech

PlantTech research scientist  Hao Gao .

PlantTech research scientist Hao Gao.

A move from Auckland to the Bay of Plenty has introduced Hao Gao to an industry with incredible opportunities and a lifestyle to envy.

The research scientist is among PlantTech’s growing team of researchers tasked with supporting shareholders harness the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to grow their plant-based businesses.

His skills working with complex algorithms and large volumes of data with companies in China and New Zealand are now being applied in a horticultural context and in environments where Hao has never worked before.

“Before coming here, I’d never seen an avocado tree, and kiwifruit vines in real life are not as big as I imagined they would be.

“But the technology of computer vision and algorithms that I am familiar with…all of that is transferable to the ag industry and that’s where I can add value by helping the industry overcome its biggest challenges.”

Previously, Hao has worked on artificial intelligence and computer vision algorithms in the cloud and on devices. His work included development of fruit detection, facial recognition and human pose detection models for lower-powered CPUs. The exciting aspect of this, is that these devices are able to be deployed on the edge of networks.  That means potential to be used out in the field or the orchard, well away from the sort of high energy places that AI usually hangs out.

In Auckland, he also worked for an analytics company that used data to help television producers  better measure and understand consumer sentiment about their shows expressed by viewers on various social media platforms.

Since joining PlantTech, he has met with shareholders to learn about projects they are working on and identify how his skills and experience can benefit them. Already, he can see potential for exciting collaborations and game-changing industry breakthroughs.

“If we can digitise the data in agriculture and apply machine learning and algorithms, I think there are areas where we may be able to revolutionise the industry.

“There is so much potential in this area. It’s very exciting actually.”

It’s likely Hao will be putting his background with developing digital fruit detection models to good use for PlantTech. It’s his experience and skill in this area that lends itself well to future data intelligence projects involving shareholders and work relating to harvesting, volume estimation or crop maturity.

Solving the problem of global labour shortages at harvest is a major driver for innovation in the industry. Agricultural robots like drones, autonomous tractors and robot arms can free farmers from repetitive, labour-intensive tasks and therefore increase efficiency and yields.

With his feet on the ground, Hao is engaged with industry partners on a project applying deep learning algorithms involving specific image data. While much of this research remains confidential for now, the work is expected to benefit a particular primary export sector once complete.

Hao is unequivocal in his belief that automation will play a key role in the future of horticulture and he can see a time when autonomous vehicles are used by growers and managers to drive through orchards and support them to detect problems.

“Right now, if you want to check on your fruit or the health of your trees, you need to walk through your orchard. But it’s possible that self-driving vehicles could be used, allowing growers to focus solely on inspecting their crops as they drive by.

“The agricultural industry is almost an unexplored field in the areas of computer vision and machine learning and I can see lots of opportunities.”

While new to horticulture, Hao is quickly discovering it complements his family’s love of the outdoors. He moved to Tauranga with his wife and two-year-old daughter who are also enjoying their new lifestyle in the Bay of Plenty.

“The weather is better and my morning commute is only a 10-minute drive – that would never happen in Auckland.”