Artificial intelligence is boosting banana farmer profits by minimising waste when harvesting and packing the crops.
De Montfort University Leicester (DMU)’s OPTIcut tool is a decision support system to reduce fruit waste, enhance quality control and maximise profitability in the banana supply chain.
Bananas as a crop can be tricky to cut into clusters without creating waste. This is because a single plant produces a bunch, which in itself can contain up to 20 ‘hands’ of bananas – these are groups of individual bananas from which clusters are cut and then packed into boxes to be shipped to.
Clusters are a collection of banana fingers and the specifications of each type of cluster are unique for every costumer. Orders vary on minimum and maximum width, length and number of banana fingers. Growers have to cut and pack the fruit to fulfil the specific cluster requirements and number of boxes for multiple costumers at the same time.
Trials on banana plantations in Central America using OPTIcut optimized cutting strategies proved successful in reducing waste by 5-10% compared to estimations by experienced croppers with more than 30 years’ experience in the field. In an industry worth around £8billion a year generated in exports, that adds up to more profits for the farmers.
OPTIcut is led by Professor David Elizondo of DMU’s Computing, Engineering and Media Department. David hopes to launch the optimization tool as a university spin-off this year.
David said: “OPTIcut is a great example of some of the benefits that applied AI can bring to the agricultural sector; particularly in these challenging times with climate change.
“This exciting and challenging project has been going on for more than 5 years. It has been largely supported by DMU and has involved a very large international team of dedicated collaborators including some banana producers. Our team believes that OPTIcut will be of great benefit to growers and other stakeholders with the potential to make a positive impact on the environment. We have recently finished an Innovate UK ICURe project for the market validation of OPTIcut.
“We are now working towards the licensing stage of OPTIcut with support from ICURe. The next steps include the trial of OPTIcut in additional pilot farms and to commercialise the software by creating a spin-off company this year.”
The huge collection of data, compiled with the help of OPTIcut, is also able to help the growers to prevent fruit damage and further reduce waste.
This is calculated by providing them with detailed geographical information on where, historically, the main damages are occurring in the farm and the percentage of crops affected. This data also provides growers with a data-driven decision support system towards the development of managerial strategies tailored to each individual the farm.
OPTIcut further helps farmers to better estimate the amount of fruit available in every site of their farm for each class of cut that they commercialise, also known as its fruit profile. This will enable them to allocate the most suitable site for each type of cluster.
This has in turn improved the number of high-quality fruits that are delivered to customers, ensuring farmers can be paid a higher price for the produce and suffer from fewer penalties for supplying either damaged goods or goods that are not compliant to the specifications.
Traditional methods of estimating fruit profiles involve cutting every single banana ‘finger’ off the banana hands. The majority of this fruit will then become waste as there is little market for single banana fingers. Instead, OPTIcut is able to use 3D imaging to measure and count the fruit, without waste or damage, higher accuracy and a lot faster than the manual alternative.
Over five years, a number of successful field trials have been performed in Costa Rica in collaboration with three of the largest global banana growers. These trials earned extremely positive reviews from growers, who are able to access the information needed on an easy-to-use dashboard, which gives them the information they need at a glance. They also resulted in a large number of enhancements of the software to better fulfil the needs of the growers.
The next steps for OPTIcut include further field validation of the novel 3D image processing system. We have an agreement with a large grower in Costa Rica (6000 hectares) to further trial and validate OPTIcut. This farm will act as a pilot farm where other producers can come and see OPTIcut working. As part of an Innovate UK ICURe market validation project, other growers in India, Belize and Phillipines have also agreed to participate on the trials of OPTIcut.