A joint research project could prove to be a game-changer for New Zealand's cannabis industry.
Rua Bioscience and the University of Waikato have announced a two-year research programme to investigate the application of hyperspectral technology to the cultivation and assessment of medicinal cannabis.
The cannabis testing industry is expected to be worth $2.5bn (USD$1.8 billion) by 2025, mainly due to global demand for medicinal cannabis.
However, current analytical methods presented significant challenges for commercial cannabis growers.
Testing required the destruction of some product, was expensive and the turn-around of results meant delays in decision-making.
Researchers at Rua Bioscience and the University of Waikato hoped real-time monitoring using hyperspectral imaging would change that, with the potential to transform the way the global medicinal cannabis industry qualified, assessed and managed its crops.
What is hyperspectral technology?
Hyperspectral technology involved imaging that collected and processed information from across the visible and near-infrared spectrum.
Screening methods using hyperspectral imaging were increasingly used in precision agriculture to determine optimal harvest timings, detect pests and diseases and the chemical profile of living plants.
However, little work had been done to test the technology on cannabis crops, due to tight legal restrictions on cannabis cultivation.
The two-year proof-of-concept project aimed to develop and prototype an automated, near-infrared imaging system that would enable the on-site assessment of individual cannabis plants in real-time - without destroying any product.
If the technology was successful it would revolutionise cultivation practices, Rua Bioscience chief executive Rob Mitchell said.
"Rua will be well-placed to develop and market world-class agritech for the global cannabis industry."
The medical cannabis challenge
The ultimate aim of the technology was to support the cultivation of consistently high-quality crops.
This was a common challenge for growers of medicinal cannabis who often encountered variations in the quality of cannabinoid production, Rua Bioscience chief research officer Dr Jessika Nowak said.
In a tightly controlled and regulated pharmaceutical environment, variations were unacceptable, Nowak said.
"Testing is therefore critical and needs to be extensive, but there is currently no cost-effective, commercially viable technology that instantly assesses the consistency of an entire crop."
The advanced sensor system was expected to improve crop quality and consistency and support agile, real-time plant management decision-making.
Nowak hoped such a tool would enable growers to target specific parts of the cannabis plant (such as the flower) and support the instant analysis of key growth factors, including lighting, humidity and nutrient levels.
The partnership followed groundbreaking work led by Dr Melanie Ooi (Associate Professor at the University of Waikato), Wayne Holmes (Senior Lecturer, Unitec Institute of Technology) and Rua Bioscience.
Last year, a collaborative study between the partners showed the technology could successfully identify structural features of the cannabis plant.
The pilot study determined the technology could further support the assessment of compounds produced from medicinal cannabis flower.
Ooi believed applying this technology to cannabis would be a New Zealand first and could be a real game-changer for the industry.
"It is a world-leading initiative. To our knowledge, no other group has looked at using hyperspectral imaging technology to measure quality growth factors or remotely identify plant pests, diseases and optimal harvest times across an entire cannabis crop in real-time."
New Zealand had a strong reputation for agritech globally and there was exciting potential for this project, Director of research and enterprise at the University of Waikato, Dr Simon Lovatt said
"With support of the University's commercialisation arm WaikatoLink, we have brought together some outstanding Kiwi researchers, each with extensive expertise in agritech, to advance this project. It's exciting to work with Dr Nowak and Rua Bioscience to develop this ground-breaking technology."
Rua's research team had programmed the project for the next two years.
Ooi's research was partly supported by the University of Waikato and the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship. The project also received funding from Unitec.