Remote sensing champion wins Poggendorf Award

Published 20 February 2017

Andrew Robson has completed a cycle of sorts by winning the 2016 Royal Society of New South Wales’s  Poggendorff Lecture Award, in recognition of his “significant contributions to agricultural research, particularly in the use of remote sensing”.

The Poggendorff Lecture Award is presented by the Royal Society of NSW, which bestows “the oldest and most prestigious awards in Australia” in the field of science. The Award has only been bestowed by the Royal Society four times, and only once in the 21st Century.

It recognises A/Prof Robson’s pioneering work in driving remote sensing applications for agriculture. He leads or collaborates in industry-funded research projects that span nine industries worth $12 million.

The projects, encompassing avocadoes, mangoes, macadamias, bananas, sugar, rice, pineapple and vegetable crops, are significantly improving the profile and adoption of remote sensing technologies, with the aim of assisting on-farm management and yield forecasting.

The award was a bequest to the Royal Society by brilliant agricultural scientist Walter Poggendorf, who joined Yanco Rice Research Station at its inception in 1928 and made major contributions to the development of the Australian rice industry, and later, to tree crops and melons.

Coincidentally, A/Prof Robson also began his career at Yanco.

After working in the Riverina for a year picking oranges, he was employed by NSW Department of Primary Industries at Yanco for a two-week job washing out rice roots. The fortnight turned into six years (1996- 2002) of employment with the rice physiology department, during which he also completed an external Environmental Science degree at Charles Sturt University, majoring in remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

From Yanco he joined the Queensland Department of Primary Industries at the Kingaroy field station, where he completed his PhD through the University of Queensland, evaluating remote sensing technologies for the prediction of yield, maturity and aflatoxin in peanuts.

A/Prof Robson joined UNE in 2012. His current research footprint spans nine agricultural commodities, including avocados, mangoes, macadamias, bananas, sugar, rice, pineapple and vegetable crops. His focus is on significantly improving the uptake of remote sensing technologies as a tool for on-farm management and yield forecasting.

One project, funded by Sugar Research Australia, is automating the processing and delivery of imagery products (yield, crop vigour and foliar Nitrogen content) from more than 95 per cent of the total Australian crop – 80,000 individual sugar crops a year.

With his team of three post doctorate researchers and six PhD students co-supervised PhD students, A/ Prof Robson recently established the Agricultural Remote Sensing Team (ARST), a theme of UNE’s Precision Agriculture Research Group, which is considered as a national leader of agricultural remote sensing research, development and extension.

The Royal Society will present the ‘Poggendorff Lecture Award’ medal at a black-tie dinner in May, with A/Prof. Robson to deliver the lecture itself at a later date.

Another UNE researcher, Professor Stuart Barker, received the Poggendorf Lecture Award in 1993. Prof. Barker had a remarkable career in animal genetics, holding continuous grants from the Australian Research Council and its predecessor (the Australian Research Grants Committee) from the Committee’s inception in 1965 until his retirement in 1998.

Other highlights from Andrew Robson’s career:

At Kingaroy, between 2007-12, Robson undertook industry funded research to evaluate remote sensing technologies across agricultural systems including peanut, cotton, sugarcane, grains and avocado in Australia and in Papua New Guinea. He also contributed remote sensing support for assessing biosecurity threats, including citrus canker, smut and yellow canopy syndrome in sugarcane and ascochyta in chick peas.

He joined the University of New England’s (UNE) Precision Agriculture Research group (PARG) in 2012 as a research scientist on a national project, funded by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), evaluating ground-based sensing for the accurate estimation of pasture biomass.

He also worked on a Sugar Research Australia (SRA) funded project developing yield forecasting models from remotely sensed imagery. He has developed a similar model for avocadoes in a project funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia and Avocado Australia.

In 2013, Robson put together a multidisciplinary team (4 universities, 2 government agencies, 3 industry groups, consultants and growers)  in a national horticulture project mapping the extent of all commercial avocado, mango and macadamia orchards across Australia, while evaluating a range of remote sensing and robotic platforms to assist the industries with improved on-farm management. The $7.2 million project is funded by the Federal governments ‘Rural Research and Development for Profit’ scheme and Horticulture Innovation Australia.