Rua Bioscience and the University of Waikato have announced a two-year research program to investigate the application of hyperspectral technology to the cultivation and assessment of medicinal cannabis.

Hyperspectral technology involves imaging that collects and processes information from across the visible and near-infrared spectrum. It is increasingly used in precision agriculture to determine optimal harvest timings, detect pests and diseases and the chemical profile of living plants.

The researchers hope the method will avoid the need to destroy some cannabis product during testing, save money and speed up turnaround times, giving it the potential to transform the way the global medicinal cannabis industry qualifies, assesses and manages its crops.

However, due to tight legal restrictions on cannabis cultivation, little work has been done to test the technology on cannabis crops so far.

Rua Bioscience chief research officer Dr Jessika Nowak: currently no cost-effective, commercially viable technology that instantly assesses the consistency of an entire crop

The two-year proof-of-concept project aims to develop and prototype an automated, near-infrared imaging system that will enable the on-site assessment of individual cannabis plants in real-time without destroying any product.

Rua Bioscience CEO Rob Mitchell said: “If this technology works the way we think it will, as suggested by the pilot study, not only will we be able to revolutionise our own cultivation practices, Rua will be well placed to develop and market world-class agritech for the global cannabis industry.”

Primarily driven by global demand for medicinal cannabis, the cannabis testing industry is predicted to be worth NZ$2.5 billion by 2025.

Rua Bioscience chief research officer Dr Jessika Nowak added: “In a tightly controlled and regulated pharmaceutical environment, variations are unacceptable. 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.

“We expect an advanced sensor system like this to improve crop quality and consistency and support agile, real-time plant management decision making.”

Associate Professor at the University of Waikato Dr Melanie Ooi: applying the technology to cannabis would be a game-changer for the industry

Dr Nowak said the tool could 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.

Last year, a collaborative study between the University of Waikato, Unitec Institute of Technology and Rua Bioscience 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.

Associate Professor at the University of Waikato Dr Melanie Ooi said applying the technology to cannabis would be a New Zealand first and could be a real game-changer for the industry.

She added: “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.”