Case study

Developing a smart robotic mobile platform to transform indoor pollination operations

The industry challenge

Horticulture is one of Australia’s most labour intensive agricultural sectors. Labour accounts for a significant portion of crop production costs, particularly in tasks such as monitoring, harvesting and pollination. This is particularly true for indoor growers, who often must resort to manual pollination due to the low numbers of natural pollinators in Australia.

The strategic solution

In response to this pressing issue, Future Food Systems (FFS) played a pivotal role in facilitating a solution. FFS effectively connected P’Petual Holdings, a commercial greenhouse operator, with the Robotics team at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). This collaboration resulted in the development of an innovative, fully automated mobile system for pollination. Under the guidance of Dr Chris Lehnert and his expert team at QUT, a solution was developed that not only addressed P’Petual’s needs but has the potential to transform the entire indoor horticulture sector.

Credit: P’Petual Holdings
The project team in the P’Petual glasshouse with the platform and P’Petual’s pollination equipment attached to it. L-R: John Skinner (Research Fellow, QUT), Chris Lehnert (project lead, QUT), Nick Goode (P’Petual), Henry Liu (P’Petual), Dennis and Enricho (P’Petual / EMP Electrical Services). Credit: Dr Chris Lehnert

The impact

By the conclusion of FY2022/23, the fully automated pollination system had been seamlessly integrated into P’Petual’s commercial glasshouse facility. This reduces the necessity for human intervention, resulting in substantial time and cost savings. The system exhibited remarkable efficiency, consumed minimal energy and boasted the flexibility to recharge during offpeak hours or with renewable energy sources. P’Petual, spurred by this success, utilised the proceeds from selling the intellectual property of its robotic pollination system to accelerate its business expansion. The timely co-funding and efficient project approval processes facilitated by FFS played a pivotal role in expediting the development of this groundbreaking solution. Furthermore, the partnership with FFS and QUT provided P’Petual with access to cuttingedge research and highly skilled personnel, accelerating the company’s progress.

Credit: Dr Chris Lehnert

What's next?

The resulting automated mobile greenhouse pollination system not only met immediate needs but opened doors to a wide array of applications within indoor horticulture and beyond. Dr Lehnert’s vision involves adapting the platform to support various labour-saving robotic equipment, potentially revolutionising tasks such as monitoring, counting, harvesting and pest detection in the agricultural sector. Encouragingly, two potential commercial partners have expressed keen interest in collaborating to commercialise this transformative robotic platform. Furthermore, the dissemination of the project’s findings through an upcoming academic paper by Dr Lehnert and Dr John Skinner promises to contribute significantly to the field of agricultural robotics.

Dr Lehnert with capsicum-harvesting robot Harvey. Credit: QUT
“As a prominent glasshouse vegetable grower in Australia, we faced labour shortages that hindered our ability to meet crop production deadlines. Dr Chris Lehnert’s expertise in horticultural robotics provided a transformative solution to automate labour-intensive tasks within P’Petual’s protected cropping facility.”
– Mr Pandian Govindarasu, R&D Manager, P’Petual Holdings
“We’ve successfully developed a self-guiding robotic platform that utilises advanced computer vision to navigate the pipe rails of modern commercial greenhouses. This robust platform, equipped with deep-learning pipe-rail vision and a reliable robotic mapping and navigation system, autonomously tracks its location within a greenhouse. Its sophisticated decision-making capabilities allow it to self-correct, detect and resolve errors, and seamlessly navigate crop rows. Our platform not only met but exceeded expectations, paving the way for robots to automate critical tasks in real greenhouses without any infrastructure modifications.”
– Dr Chris Lehnert, Chief Investigator, QUT Robotics Centre and project lead
“Automating pollination, a high-cost and labour-intensive task, brings substantial cost savings and mitigates risks related to labour availability. No commercial solutions exist for autonomous pollination or other labour-intensive greenhouse tasks. This achievement marks a significant leap towards that goal.”
– Mr. Henry Liu, Director and GM, P’Petual Holdings