UP Engineering 4.0’s ‘smart avos’ hold the key to determining the impact of transportation conditions on agricultural products

Posted on June 04, 2021

Ensuring that agricultural products intended for the export market arrive at their destination unblemished and suitable for further distribution and sale is a challenge experienced by producers in South Africa. Due to its reputation in smart transportation, the University of Pretoria’s Department of Civil Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, located in the state-of-the-art Engineering 4.0 facility, was approached to devise a possible solution.

Based on its previous experience in determining the impact of transportation conditions on agricultural products, and optimising these conditions to ensure that products such as tomatoes and avocados arrive at the consumer in the best condition, the Department’s researchers accepted the challenge. Its development of a concept known as “civiltronics” played an important role in finding an innovative solution. This entails the combination of traditional civil engineering with electronics, the internet of things (IoT), programming, computer science and additive manufacturing (3D printing).

The flagship project involves monitoring the transportation by cargo ship of a consignment of avocados destined for Rotterdam in The Netherlands, from where it will be further distributed throughout the European Union. In the words of researcher André Broekman, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Therefore, the team made use of the Department’s unique smAvo and smaTo sensor platforms, which are used to monitor the entire value chain, from farm to fork.

Andre Broekman, a PhD student who is part of the research team, explains to UP Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe and Themba Mhambi, Chairman of the SANRAL Board, how the avos become "smart".

It may look like an avo, but is it an avo?

To optimise the data recorded during the transportation of the avocados, the team developed a measuring instrument with microsensors embedded in a number of 3D-printed avocados with a soft water-resistant outer covering that would be exposed to the same conditions as the real produce surrounding them. This instrument was developed from “off-the-shelf” components and microcontrollers. It was programmed and customised for the objectives of this particular project so that live, real-time data could be collected and stored for analysis. Real-time data on the ship’s location in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as weather conditions throughout the trip, was sent to the University’s researchers at Engineering 4.0 in Pretoria, where all the data will be captured on the Department’s central platform for analysis, interpretation and the recommendation of future action.  

The microsensors with which the “smart avos” were fitted measured variables such as accelerations in speed, rotational movements of the ship and temperature, as well as other elements of the ship’s behaviour, to determine whether this impacted on the produce itself and the condition in which it arrived at its destination. It also determined whether the cold chain was preserved along the route.

This data will later be linked to maritime data such as the height of the waves, wind speed and the direction in which the ship is travelling, which were obtained from satellite data. This information is not just of value to producers to ensure that they can obtain top prices for South Africa’s best products, but also to avoid additional costs related to transporting products that have been damaged or are no longer suitable for trade in the export market back to South Africa. 

According to Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering, the University’s world-class research footprint entails focusing on digital information across a transdisciplinary platform. The success of this project will therefore not be restricted to a single product or engineering discipline. Inherent in this innovate technology is the potential to apply it to other fields as well to promote the transdisciplinary research for which the University of Pretoria is so highly regarded.

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