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Digital Twins Concept Boosts Food Production in Australia

Image Credits: University of Queensland, Video, Press Release

Using technology familiar to computer gamers, University of Queensland scientists are creating ‘digital twins’ of mango and macadamia orchards to help boost food production. Professor Neena Mitter, the Director of the Centre of Horticultural Science at Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), said it was an example of how computers were changing the industry.

Professor Mitter said that developing a digital model for an orchard with slow-growing crops like mango and macadamia enables us to run virtual experiments at a scale and speed never before possible. Digital technologies offer an unprecedented acceleration in innovation that will help make food production more productive, resilient, and sustainable.

Lead researcher Dr Liqi Han said the technology would particularly benefit slow-growing crops like fruit trees. Digital modelling provides untapped opportunities for users to rapidly trial new ideas and acquires a reliable indicator of how to best optimise production systems. This technology is called ‘DigiHort’, short for Digital Horticulture.

The computer simulations can be a conceptual design of an orchard that doesn’t yet exist, a digital twin or detailed replica of an existing orchard, or a digital variant, where changes are made to a digital twin.

All three forms can be integrated with environmental and management simulators. For example, this might include sunlight and chemical spray simulations to allow for evaluation and optimisation of orchard management practice.

Virtual trials start with the design, with software users able to decide where in a landscape to plant trees, the density of the canopies and the configuration of the rows. Users then consider how the trees are maintained, wielding virtual pruners and testing the impact of different – and even unconventional – tree training systems.

This innovation is based on new LiDAR scanning technology applications undertaken with an industry partner as well as state government research stations in Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory. It relies on High-Performance Computing (HPC), which allows Dr Han to run extremely fast virtual experiments without loss of accuracy.

These days, there is a growing conversation around precision agriculture. Precision is enhanced by looking at the details, such as how much light can be captured by each leaf or fruit, or the distribution of sprayed chemicals across the canopy. These small benefits can be accumulated into big benefits or big losses can be prevented from occurring. And the team has found that small differences can have a big impact.

The DigiHort platform was designed as a decision-support service for industry and will be accessible via the internet. Recent research found that the precision farming market is estimated to be US$7.0 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach US$12.8 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 12.7% between 2020 and 2025.

The major factors driving the growth of the precision farming market include increasing farm mechanization in developing countries, rising labour costs owing to shortage of skilled labour, increasing strain on the global food supply owing to increasing population, substantial cost savings associated with smart farming techniques, and government initiatives to adopt modern agricultural techniques.

Precision farming is gaining tremendous popularity among farmers due to the increasing need for optimum crop production with limited available resources. Further, the changing weather patterns due to increasing global warming have impelled the adoption of advanced farming technologies to enhance farm productivity and crop yield.

Precision farming has the potential to transform the agricultural sector, making the traditional farming activity more efficient and predictable. Increasing global food demand, extended profitability and crop yield, and crop health monitoring for higher yield production are the major factors fuelling the growth of the precision farming market. Also, government initiatives in many countries are helping farmers to use optimized agricultural and technological tools to improve their production levels.

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