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By  Emily Lehmann 21 May 2024 2 min read

Key points

  • We’ve developed sensor-based, optical scanning technology for rapid fruit fly pest detection in fruit packing houses
  • The technology can build on and streamline existing methods used to manage fruit fly biosecurity risks in Australia
  • The breakthrough could help open new markets for Australian growers.

The highly invasive Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryonil) is one of Australia’s peskiest horticultural pests. 

It’s estimated these little insects cost the economy about $300 million each year stemming from crop damage and lost markets. Australia has a strong reputation for managing fruit fly biosecurity risks, and advances in technology can open up new opportunities to simplify how we do it. That’s why we developed sensor-based imaging technology that we refer to as ‘optical scanning’. The first of its kind, it can rapidly analyse fruit, such as cherries and blueberries, for pest damage.

Fruit flies are one of Australia's peskiest horticultural pests.

Shoo fly, don't bother our produce

Dr Maryam Yazdani is the lead scientist behind our optical scanning technology. Her background is in entomology.  

“One of the biggest barriers to exporting fresh Australian fruit is biosecurity concerns linked to fruit fly infestation,” Maryam said.

“They’re not strong fliers, but they can hide in fruits and vegetables.”

End-point treatments like fumigation, together with manual inspections, are currently used to manage infestation risks.

“End-point treatments are effective, but we’re trying to show how alternate technologies like sensors and imaging can contribute to reducing biosecurity risks in fruit for export,” Maryam said.  

“For example, there are advantages to complementing or replacing manual inspections to improve efficiencies. 

“The problem with fruit fly pests is that they can be hard to detect in fruit so we we’re looking for ways to make things easier for our producers, trading partners and biosecurity systems.” 

Alternative techniques, like optical scanning, help to exclude fruit that could be carrying an unwanted pest from entering supply chains. This could open new export opportunities for growers. 

The science behind the image

Optical scanning reveals fruit fly infestation in a cherry that's otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

Maryam’s approach combines imaging technology with AI for rapid, automated pest detection. The technology can be added to existing optical graders commonly used in fruit packhouses for sorting produce. This makes it a very efficient solution. 

Optical scanning creates an image of the fruit’s external structure at a high resolution to assess for pest damage. The new technology can detect damage, such as where fruit fly eggs have been laid in cherries, with more than 90 per cent accuracy. These eggs are hard to detect visually, even by trained observers. The enhanced data can then feed directly into biosecurity systems and processes.

This gives trading partners confidence that Australian produce is pest free.

“Our technology identifies insect damage on fresh fruit like cherries, which can then be removed via existing sorting technologies in pack houses,” Maryam said. 

“It can make it easier to demonstrate that our fruit is pest free.” 

Imaging benefits come to fruition

Our prototype testing found that grading systems deploying our technology are more efficient at reducing the risk of infested fruit being found in packed product. It’s been tested on blueberries, apricots, peaches, apples and mangoes, in addition to cherries. 

Initial investigations show the technology can potentially be used on other pest species such as the Mediterranean fruit fly with comparable accuracy. 

Optical scanning was developed to further enhance trust and open new markets for Australia’s agricultural exports. The next step will be to license the technology to a commercial partner to undertake trials in pack houses and see the benefits of imaging come to fruition.

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