Colour Imaging Pipeline for Orchard Aerial Surveys


EIRA have funded a unique project between the University of East Anglia and Outfield Technologies Ltd to develop an imaging solution for assessing the colour of fruit in a commercial orchard from a drone survey, with the aim of reducing food waste and improving efficiency.

Commercial apple production is worth £150 million per year in the UK and £1.5 billion in the EU, but predicting the value of a single orchard’s harvest is a tough challenge. Growers currently have no reliable method for estimating the amount and quality of fruit being produced until the fruit is picked from the tree and sent for packing. This lack of reliable forecasting data leads to inefficiencies and wastage throughout the growing season, as growers struggle to predict their requirements for labour, logistics, storage, and to track their performance against production contracts.

Volume of the crop is only one predictor of harvest value – the other is fruit quality. Tracking the colour of fruit in the orchard allows growers to assess if the harvested fruit will satisfy the strict requirements from retailers for high quality and therefore high value fruit. Tracking colour also allows the grower to monitor the crop’s development, produce better predictions for harvest time and detect disease. Mapping the variation of fruit colouration across the orchard allows growers and agronomists to identify key underlying trends in the crop. By tracking these metrics during the season, the grower can make interventions in the orchard and reduce the number of rejected apples during and after harvest – reducing food waste and improving farm efficiency.

Now, with EIRA R&D funding, Outfield Technologies Ltd is trying to address this challenge, by using drones and imagery recognition technologies to provide growers with accurate data on their orchards.

Outfield is an agri-tech startup based in Cambridge, developing applications for drone and imagery recognition systems in managing fruit crops. Outfield is building scalable crop management systems that will allow growers to meet challenges such as rising labour costs and reduced access to pesticides, bringing new levels of precision farming.
The objective of this project is to develop an imaging solution for assessing the colour of fruit in a commercial orchard from a drone survey, in order to predict the quality of the orchard yield. The project will investigate the whole colour imaging pipeline for drone surveys of orchard crops.

Jim McDougall, Outfield Technologies Ltd said,

“It’s a real privilege to be working with the team at UEA on this project. Outfield has developed a world leading system to gather and analyse fruit level data from orchards, and now there is so much potential to provide growers and the industry with further insights from this data. We work with growers every day, now on 4 continents, so we know the importance of understanding fruit quality. This project plans to take a big step forward in providing growers with colour assessments for their crops, forecasting quality and allowing for improved crop management. This project aims to push the limits of technology to provide very valuable data for growers internationally, and potentially can also reduce waste and improve efficiency in orchards to make feeding the world more sustainable.”

Dr Michal Mackiewicz, from the Colour & Imaging Lab, School of Computing Sciences at UEA, will work with Outfield to develop a colour imaging pipeline. The developed solution will help to improve Outfield’s current surveying systems and to develop future crop management services.

Dr Michal Mackiewicz said:

“The Colour & Imaging Lab has a long track record in research and innovation in camera processing pipelines with a particular emphasis on image colour fidelity. Lab members work closely with commercial partners – from consumer imaging to agritech – to transfer our research into their systems and products.  We are delighted to work with Outfield, a Cambridge based company that provides UAV systems for surveying orchards – and help them to acquire images that show the true colour of fruit. By preserving the veridical colour of fruit, Outfield can better counsel their growers e.g. advise when they should harvest. Our project will lead to improved decision making, increased efficiency and waste reduction.”

The outcomes from this project will allow Outfield to offer fruit quality assessment as a feature to their apple grower customers worldwide. This will increase the competitiveness of the Outfield system and its utility to growers.