Israeli Startup Putting the Squeeze on Citrus Disease with AI

SeeTree applies AI, sensors, drones and people to battle citrus disease.
by Scott Martin

The multibillion-dollar citrus industry is getting squeezed.

The disease known as “citrus greening” is causing sour fruit around the world. Damage to Florida’s citrus crops has cost billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, according to the University of Florida. In the past few years, the disease has moved into California.

SeeTree, an AI startup based in Tel Aviv, is helping farmers step up crop defenses.

The startup’s GPU-driven tree analytics platform relies on image recognition algorithms, sensors, drones and an app for collecting data on the ground. Its platform helps farmers pinpoint affected trees for removal to slow the spread of the orchard disease.

“In permanent crops such as trees, if you make a mistake you will suffer for years,” said Ori Shachar, SeeTree’s head of science and AI. “Florida has lost 75 percent of its crops from citrus greening.”

SeeTree works with orchards hit by the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect that spreads the disease causing patchy leaves and green fruit.

Citrus greening is an irreversible condition. Farmers need to move quickly to replace trees hit by citrus greening to blunt the advance of the disease throughout orchards.

Cultivating Precision Agriculture

SeeTree’s citrus greening containment effort is just one aspect of its business. The company’s analytics platform enables customers to track the performance of their farms, as well as get the best results from their use of fertilizer, pesticides, water and labor.

The startup is among a growing field of companies focused on precision agriculture. These companies apply deep learning to agricultural data and run on NVIDIA GPUs to yield visual analytics for farm optimization.

SeeTree uses NVIDIA Jetson TX2 to process images and CUDA as the interface for cameras at orchards. The TX2 enables it to do fruit-detection for orchards as well as provide farms with a yield estimation tool.

“The result is a fairly accurate estimation of the amount of fruit per tree,” Shachar said. “This offers intelligent farming and planning for the farmer.”

The startup taps NVIDIA GPUs on Google Cloud Platform to train its image recognition algorithms on thousands of images of fruit.

Optimized farms can reduce water and pesticide use as well as increase their yield, among other benefits, according to SeeTree.

“We’re introducing automation in orchards, and suddenly you can do stuff differently — it’s data-driven decisions on a large scale,” said Shachar, who was previously at Mobileye.

In addition to development in Israel, the startup is working in California and Brazil.

IoT for Agriculture

Drones are important. In Brazil, where SeeTree is helping battle citrus greening, workers are slowed by the high temperatures. SeeTree is able to do drone inspections from remote locations and capture in one hour what takes several weeks with a person on the ground.

“Drones are the workhorse of our activity. It allows us to get to every tree to get the information and get multiple resolutions,” said Shachar.

There is no known biological or chemical fix for the problem right now, and it’s not anticipated to be solved for at least five years, Shachar said.

For now, improved maintenance is the key. Farmers can use sensors to keep trees healthier. By better tracking the soil moisture levels and air temperature, farmers can adjust their irrigation to make sure root systems aren’t being over-watered.

All of this data can be viewed as analytics on SeeTree’s platform for farmers.

Citrus greening in the U.S. has also hit Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Hawaii. It’s in Mexico, Cuba and other regions of the world, as well.

Image credit: Hans Braxmeier, released under Creative Commons.