A group of enterprising students from the UBC Sauder School of Business and the UBC Faculty of Applied Science are tackling the harmful effects of climate change in B.C.’s fruit orchards with the creative use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. They have developed a solution that monitors the surface temperature of fruit and activates systems to cool the fruit and prevent heat damage. The technology has the potential to help fruit farmers navigate harsher environmental conditions and prevent crop loss.
In B.C.’s fruit-growing regions, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, grapes and apples typically thrive under sunny skies and warm temperatures, but last summer’s extreme heat resulted in scorched fruit and lost revenue for hundreds of farmers.
A team of students decided to explore this problem in New Venture Design (NVD), a course jointly offered by UBC Sauder and the UBC Faculty of Applied Science. Matt Bagley, a UBC Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) student specializing in marketing, participated in the market research.
“After interviewing farmers in both B.C. and Washington State, we learned that an average orchard typically loses around 10 per cent of their yield in a regular year due to heat damage, causing a financial loss of almost $1,000 per acre. However, after losing up to 25 per cent of their yield last year because of record high temperatures, these farmers are bracing for things to get worse,” says Bagley.
Bringing the digital age to the apple orchard
The team began looking at the opportunity of using AI technology to monitor the surface temperature of tree fruit. They reached out to experts in the agricultural technology industry and refined their idea until they were ready to present it to their professors and peers. They called their business venture, Coolares.
Blair Simonite, Adjunct Professor, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group at UBC Sauder, is one of the NVD instructors who provides instruction and guidance as the student teams progress through the one-year course and walk in the shoes of venture builders.
"Team Coolares is an impressive example of what NVD students are capable of,” says Simonite. “Motivated by climate change, they identified an agri-tech market opportunity and created a unique solution that they’re now testing in the real world. It’s these kinds of learning outcomes that make teaching NVD so energizing.”
Harnessing data for better decision making
The students built what they believe is the first fully autonomous sensor that monitors the surface temperature of tree fruits and works in conjunction with existing orchard cooling systems to keep fruit temperatures at a safe level.
Typical water-cooling systems are either manually operated or set on a timer, but watering is somewhat haphazard. According to Huzaifa Wahla, a member of the Coolares team who lent his mechanical engineering skills to the project, their invention is designed to deliver more precise and efficient cooling through sophisticated data collection.
“The genius of our sensor lies within its proprietary machine learning algorithm,” explains Wahla. “Utilizing thermal satellite imagery, we identify hot spots in an apple orchard where our device can be placed. The device consists of several cameras that can segment the apple from the environment. Once we know where the fruit is located, we map this information to our custom unit to accurately measure the fruit’s surface temperature. Ambient temperature and humidity are also recorded.”
Partnering with UBC Farm
Leveraging their technology solution, the young entrepreneurs have an ambitious goal: to reduce crop losses in B.C. fruit orchards to just three to five per cent of annual yield. But first they need to confirm their proof of concept by running tests and collecting data in a real fruit orchard. As it turns out, they don’t have to go far.
“We’re setting up our equipment and running a pilot study at UBC Farm this summer,” says Bagley. “Over the growing season, we’re going to evaluate our wireless communications, the robustness of our solution, and hopefully expose any unexpected problems,” he says.
The team has also approached Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to partner on a much larger pilot study in Summerland. If all goes according to plan, Coolares hopes to file a patent later this year and then start building a sales pipeline.
For Bagley, who graduates from UBC Sauder this fall, becoming an entrepreneur is an unexpected but exciting career outcome that might not have happened if he hadn’t enrolled in New Venture Design.
“It was the best course I’ve taken in my entire degree program,” he says. “I’ve really enjoyed this learning experience and if we can create a viable solution for fruit farmers to manage climate change, then I will have found myself a meaningful career.”