Robotic "super suit" among hi-tech advances improving NZ food.

The drone hovers above a valuable field crop. Its specially developed camera detects the enemy: weeds.

It links to a geospatial system and logs the coordinates of the offending plants. Later, an AsureQuality inspector travels to the exact spot to confirm identification and remedial action.

Meanwhile, another AsureQuality inspector – one of hundreds in New Zealand's meat processing plants – manipulates a huge beef carcass, checking it for defects or disease. He is wearing a robotic exoskeleton "super suit" which looks straight out of Marvel Comics and has variable power levels in the arms – literally making light work of heavy lifting.

These two technological developments – the drone technology an AsureQuality pilot project and the super suit, developed overseas and just coming onto the market – are part of the futurist world of AsureQuality's General Manager of Science and Technology, Dr Harry van Enckevort.

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New Zealand's premier food assurance organisation, AsureQuality has to have a foot firmly in the future, he says, if New Zealand is to keep its global reputation as a source of quality food and food innovators.

"We have a view of what could happen," says van Enckevort. "It's now about making it happen. As our CEO, John McKay said the other day – we can't stay here, we've got to go there [the future].

"There's an old quote that is relevant too, I think: 'The people saying something can't happen are usually interrupted by someone making it happen'. That's where we have to be... making it happen."

AsureQuality's role is assurance but also has a key part to play in helping to build and protect NZ Inc. It works side by side with food providers from farm gate to retail, ensuring not only quality but helping that quality to be seen and understood by global consumers increasingly selecting food with proven elements like wellness, sustainability, ethics and animal welfare.

So, to return to the drone, uninvited guests in a crop, such as weeds or disease, can have a deleterious effect, particularly on exports. Weeds can contaminate seeds and there can be biosecurity issues.

Van Enckevort says the pilot project involving drones will ascertain whether it can work across New Zealand but says there is an almost certain benefit to AsureQuality inspectors and customers: "On average, at the busy part of the season, our inspectors walk about 11km a day in often difficult terrain.

"The drone project will hopefully show us how much more efficient this process can be by cutting down the time involved by having an exact fix on weeds and the level of contamination – much more efficient and efficacious for the customer as well as us."

The other advantage of the drone proposition is that a wealth of other data can be captured on plant health, soil characteristics, terrain and topography – all of which can be harnessed for use through artificial intelligence (AI) and 'big data' analytics.

AsureQuality and van Enckevort are also increasingly involved in these fields , often referred to as part of the "fourth industrial revolution" (the first three being the steam engine, electricity and then computing and digital technology). Now the fourth "revolution" involves the internet being set to play the ubiquitous role in our lives that electricity does today with advances in the likes of AI, nanotechnology, robotics, 3-D printing, biotechnology and quantum computing.

The robotic suit in the meat processing plants is one example and, though its primary usage is as a health and safety measure for inspectors sometimes injured by the lifting, twisting and turning they do in their jobs, it also brings greater efficiency and thus less time and money expended by their customers.

Van Enckevort says AsureQuality can use 'big data' by being home to a wealth of primary industry information and creating meaning from such data: "Together with our customers, we want to analyse and interpret historical and current data to make predictions about future risks, opportunities and trends and response options for the primary and food industries."

He will soon trial what AI can do with data, with one example being an app developed in eastern Europe which uses machine learning and image analytics to gauge, with 95 per cent accuracy, the weight and condition of cattle.

"There is a great deal more interest in animal welfare from regulators and consumers these days," he says. "But checking the condition, weight and health of animals like cattle is troublesome and occasionally dangerous.

"The app was developed after they took lots and lots of photographs, weighed animals and so on – and built up a huge database that they then applied an algorithm to. That means they can now just take a photograph of a cattle animal and the database will compute its weight with 95 per cent accuracy across the six different breeds of cattle.

AsureQuality have also just held a pilot project using augmented reality (AR) headsets which could be a game-changer in terms of the way they work with customers across audit and inspection programmes, with AR's ability for users to handle multiple tasks at once and for remote efficiency.

They are also holding trials to see if they can use a handheld device to drive more efficiency and cost savings in the lures and baits of thousands of fruit fly traps set up around potential risk sites.

Says van Enckevort: "We are already industry leaders but my mandate is clear. It's not about maintaining our position, it's about defining and ensuring it in the future."