University of Pretoria researchers invent the ‘smart avocado’

In a blow to regular avocados everywhere, researchers from the University of Pretoria’s Engineering 4.0 research facility have developed 3D-printed avocados equipped with microsensors as part of a new research project.

While the original avocado is difficult to improve on – alright, all flippancy aside – the research project is designed to determine damage to fresh produce when it is shipped from producers to supermarkets. The undertaking – determined as one of the research facility’s flagship projects – is intended as a way to track an entire value chain.

Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, explains that South African producers face challenges when attempting to ensure that their products arrive at their destination unblemished.

Naturally, a damaged product can’t (easily) be sold – meaning that the gap exists for technology to optimise travelling conditions for such products with the view of ensuring that they arrive in optimal condition.

The research team came up with an innovative way to track the damage on fresh produce through what they term “civiltronics” – combination of traditional civil engineering with electronics, the internet of things (IoT), programming, computer science and additive manufacturing (3D printing).

Steyn explains that the team’s second-generation avocados are intended to travel with regular produce and track their journey as well as the conditions they face.

“The avocados are 3D-printed with microsensors that send data back to UP’s Engineering 4.0 research facility, tracking the effects of accelerations in speed, rotational movements of the ship and temperature, as well as other elements of the ship’s behaviour, to determine whether this impacted on the produce itself and the condition in which it arrived at its destination”, Steyn explains.

The avocados log data on their journey which are relayed to a measuring instrument, and are covered with a water-resistant covering.

PhD student André Broekman explains that “Real-time data on the ship’s location in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as weather conditions throughout the trip, is being sent to the University’s researchers at Engineering 4.0, where all the data will be captured on the Department’s central platform for analysis, interpretation and the recommendation of future action”.

Naturally, the data could be further linked to other factors – including maritime conditions such as wind speed.

The concept of the smAvo – as the team calls it – could provide both producers and logistics co-ordinators with valuable insights to improve food delivery (among other items) around the world.

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