After a 'silent phase' of development and testing of two innovations by growers in the greenhouse, Plantfellow has been putting its nose to the grindstone in recent months. The two new product lines of the Dutch horticultural brand from Sobolt, which was founded in 2017, were on display at several horticultural fairs and events.
It is the run-up to upscaling and a large-scale market launch in 2023, reveals Jasper van der Auweraert, who as of this year is the face of the horticultural brand, together with Dennis van der Wiel. At the fairs and events, they showed the digital scouting solution ScoutCam and the phenotyping solution AutoPheno.
Jasper (left) at GreenTech Amsterdam 2022 with colleagues Mees Fröberg and Dennis van der Wiel
The summer of 2021 was 'the development season' for the young brand. This year is the 'year of proof,' in Jasper's words. "The first hordes of ScoutCams are now running in the greenhouse and doing their job well there. Growers learn how to work with them and gain confidence in them."
The ScoutCam was tested in five crops in 2021: cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, chrysanthemum, and gerbera. The development of the system started after questions from growers. "In our initial phase, we talked a lot with parties in the sector and visited growers. They asked for automatic pest detection systems but said there were none available yet."
Systems did exist for phenotyping. "But they are quite expensive," says Jasper. "With AutoPheno, we offer a system at lower cost that can do ninety percent of the work for the grower. Not everyone wants to drive a Ferrari. A Tesla is also good."
Although, at first glance, the ScoutCam and the AutoPheno are quite different, if only in terms of size, there are still some similarities between the two systems. "Our own expertise had to match the demands of the horticultural sector. That proved to be the case. From Sobolt, we already have the experience in other sectors with 2D and 3D image recognition."
Pests and biological control agents
Plantfellow is focusing on cultivation with the ScoutCam, and with AutoPheno initially on breeding, propagation, and research. In the future, Jasper sees opportunities to bring technology to cultivation as well. "The vertical farming market is interesting here. A lot of things have been automated, but phenotyping for good crop control is still often lacking."
In terms of pest detection, growers lacked systems that could monitor thrips. "For whitefly, however, there were already systems in place," says Jasper. "We monitor both types of pests. We are now seeing the first positive results in the greenhouses of growers, which is unique with this kind of system for thrips."
Next year, many more growers should become acquainted with the possibilities of the digital scouting solution. Plantfellow also wants to add other pests, including in other crops. "Insects fly everywhere. The next step will be the monitoring of biological control agents."
What sets the ScoutCam apart is its stable digital count. "There are now systems for counting whiteflies using a mobile phone," says Jasper, "but such systems are more sensitive to light and to the person taking the photos than our system is. This is because we attach the system to a greenhouse column. That gives stability. Moreover, we have control over the lighting and the sharpness of the photos. That prevents mistakes."
The ScoutCam with dashboard
Now that the technology works, Plantfellow is looking to translate the data for the ScoutCam into information that the grower can use immediately. "The information must be of immediate practical use. Think, for example, of the translation of a figure about the number of pest insects caught on a sticky trap into when the grower needs to apply his biology. It's about converting camera information into information for the grower."
A particular challenge in phenotyping with 2D and 3D images is scaling up, Plantfellow notes. Jasper is convinced that with experience from other sectors, this will succeed. "Automatically extracting information from 2D and 3D images in a laboratory setting is not the most difficult thing to do, certainly not for one plant. But we want to do that for the entire greenhouse. We are already seeing harvest predictions that look at the bottom of the crop. We want to move towards more difficult forms of crop registration. They will be needed for steering autonomous crops. At that point, you will have to take into account data processing on a large scale, and you will need a different type of cloud system."
As already indicated, Plantfellow for AutoPheno is not yet looking directly at production crops to use the phenotyping technique. However, there are already ideas about how this can be done. "When we bring phenotyping to production, we want to link up with existing robots. That is our preference. We think we can add to what is already available in greenhouses. Think of advanced crop registration on a large scale, with lots of data, taking into account any leaves hanging in front of plants and lighting of the camera for good images. We draw on experience from other sectors."
Plantfellow has everything in-house for the upscaling step in 2023, Jasper notes. "We are very consciously scaling up in the beginning. In principle, we want to retain control of the introduction of systems. The implementation in practice has to go really well. That is why we want to be on the ball. Until at least the first scaling-up phase, we will remain in control. However, that does not mean that we will rule out collaborations in this phase, only that these will be controlled collaborations."
ScoutCam in the gerbera crop
Open cultivation and international?
The focus is currently on the Netherlands. Internationally, however, they are already exploring the possibilities. A mission to the United States earlier this year bears witness to this. "The first talks with parties in North America are underway." Jasper and the team also met with interested international parties at trade fairs. What struck him most was a question about the use of the ScoutCam in open cultivation. "We are now focusing on cultivation in greenhouses. Open cultivation takes place on a much larger scale. There, monitoring pests everywhere on location is at least as big a challenge. We are therefore definitely keeping the option of moving into open cultivation in the back of our minds."