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Massey University research officer Gabor Kereszturi (left), Specim product manager Petri Nygren, Massey commercialisation manager Russell Wilson, Adept Turnkey chief executive Marc Fimeri, Aerial Surveys pilot Mike Marchant at a training week in Manawatū, and (below); the Fenix hyper spectral imaging system inside the Aeriel Surveys plane.

New imaging tool to revolutionise agriculture


Massey University has a new state-of-the-art aerial imaging tool in its precision agriculture arsenal that was first developed for military reconnaissance and space exploration.

The $500,000 Fenix hyper spectral imaging system from Finnish company Specim was purchased, with Massey, as part of Pioneering to Precision—a $10.3 million Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme between Ravensdown and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to improve how fertiliser is applied to hill country.

The seven-year programme, which began in June last year, is expected to generate $120 million a year in additional export earnings by 2030 and net economic benefits of $734 million between 2020 and 2050.

A requirement of the PGP contribution to the purchase is that the Fenix hyper spectral imaging system will also be made available to third parties, with priority given to Ravensdown, MPI and other associated parties during the life of the programme.

Professor of Precision Agriculture Ian Yule says the remote sensor will enable New Zealand to capture unprecedented levels of data about the nutrient content of large sections of land that may have been previously inaccessible.

“This is a game changer,” Professor Yule says. “It’s like turning the whole of New Zealand into a living lab, where you can observe exactly what is going on and describe it in greater detail than ever before.”

The technology uses hyper spectral imaging to detect the unique signature of objects or land areas, based on a near-infra-red reflection scanned by the sensor installed in a plane.

“It was originally developed to help the military find things like camouflaged tanks and it can also identify different types of soils. It’s being used in telescopes to figure out the mineralogy of Mars, so it is pretty amazing technology.”

Professor Yule says the tool can make New Zealand agriculture more efficient, profitable and environmentally friendly. “It would be a great advantage for accurately applying fertiliser on hill country but also great for the dairy sector. You could put the sensor over a whole catchment to show you where your hotspots are, to help determine where there is nitrogen run-off,” Professor Yule says.

“We can’t soil sample every part of a farm, but we know it’s hugely variable. With this tool we can overcome the sampling limitations by mapping whole landscapes, and provide data about what type and quantity of fertiliser is needed, assess pasture quality over the whole farm to help farmers determine stock carrying capacity and to locate the good quality pasture where they can fatten younger stock,” Professor Yule says.  “And there are opportunities for huge environmental benefits too.”

Massey University is also building a spectral library of species to enable regional councils and sectors such as forestry and horticulture to hire the service. “You could fly over bush and identify if there is any invasive species, something that is really expensive to do with a helicopter or with people on the ground. So this is a really cost-effective way to tell if there are weeds or diseases present.”

“This is an extremely versatile and powerful technology. You could determine the exact number of kauri trees in a forest for example, and any diseased trees would stick out. There is also huge potential for orchard-based industries, like kiwifruit growers who could identify things like the PSA vine-killing disease, way before the human-eye could detect it,” Professor Yule says.

Massey commercialisation manager Dr Russell Wilson says the university has partnered with Aerial Surveys, who will fly planes fitted with the imaging system anywhere in New Zealand. “Aerial Surveys would fly the area, capturing the data and then it would come to Massey for specific analysis based on the key questions the client wants answered, with results presented in a 3D virtual map,” Dr Wilson says.

Dr Wilson says the Fenix technology, which can sense up to 1000 hectares an hour, is a major investment for the university, and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Pioneering to Precision PGP programme.  The technology was chosen after initial trials under New Zealand conditions had produced outstanding results. Pilots and technicians are currently being trained in the use of the Fenix, which is the only instrument of its type in the Asia-Pacific region.

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