May 10, 2016      

Approximately two-thirds of Australia’s land is dedicated to farming. Although cattle grazing remains that country’s highest-value farm production sector, the next highest-value products are wheat, dairy, vegetables, and fruit and nuts, before lamb meat and wool, according to an Australian government report. Australian agribusiness faces several key challenges, including access to fresh water, overgrazing, transportation costs, and feral animals.

To deal with these issues, Australian farming has grown increasingly inventive and reliant on technology. Robotics now promises to help Australian agriculture become more productive in an increasingly competitive global market.

Groundbreaking research

Although scores of corporate and academic researchers worldwide are investigating the potential of agricultural robots, Australian government and business leaders are hoping that a homegrown crop of systems targeting applications such as pest control, planting, and harvesting will give both Australian farms and robotics companies a competitive edge.

The University of Sydney’s Australian Center for Field Robotics (ACFR), recognized internationally for its world-leading research, development, commercialization, and theoretical contributions to field robotics, is a major player in the development of various types of farm robots. The ACFR specializes in the development of intelligent robotic devices that can autonomously sense, analyze, and respond to their own surroundings in various outdoor environments, including farms.

Salah Sukkarieh, a University of Sydney professor of robotics and intelligent systems, currently leads a team that’s focusing on ways to automate a wide range of labor-intensive farming operations with the ultimate goal of improving efficiency, yield, and worker safety.

“There’s a big drive at the moment to conceptualize the future of Australian agriculture in terms of a ‘food bowl’ supplying the vast Asian market,” Sukkarieh said.

Asian population levels are soaring, yet a relative lack of arable land, water, farming, transportation, and agri-technology challenge the region’s farmers to meet a skyrocketing demand for fresh produce. Sukkarieh believes that Australian farmers, already well-known for their high-quality produce, can use robotics to become more efficient and ride a potential economic boom in agriculture.

One of the ACFR’s key projects is RIPPA (Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application), a four-wheeled, GPS-guided mobile robot that can move around a farm on battery or solar power to examine crops and collect data.

“It’s quite an efficient drive mechanism, so when there’s solar power, it’s going to actually be recharging the batteries at a rate equivalent to how much it loses, so it doesn’t lose energy,” Sukkarieh said. “We’re aiming for 24/7 operability.”

The Australian Center for Field Robotics' Ladybird

Mobile ground robot Ladybird can conduct a full range of autonomous farm sensing and manipulation tasks.

RIPPA is also designed to serve as a platform for a variety of add-ons. For exampke, VIIPA (Variable Injection Intelligent Precision Applicator) is a robotic weed killer that mounts directly onto RIPPA to autonomously shoot weeds at high speed using a directed micro-dose of liquid.

The system is designed to automatically apply the correct dose of fluid required anywhere on the farm at high speed, according to Sukkarieh.

Other agricultural robot projects

Ladybird, another ACFR initiative, aims to transform the way farmers monitor and harvest a wide array of vegetables. It is a mobile, omnidirectional, electrically powered robot with some artificial intelligence. Ladybird has the autonomy to conduct a full range of sensing and manipulation tasks, including mapping, classification, detection, weeding, and harvesting.

The lightweight vehicle also carries communication and support hardware and software. Custom user interfaces can be developed and installed for different types of agricultural users, including growers, contractors, and harvesters. They can manage the robot in specific ways and get value out of the information collected by the system.

Ladybird is currently undergoing a series of field trials at a commercial vegetable farm near Cowra, New South Wales. Yet project another Australian Center for Field Robotics project is a unique large-area, remote-sensing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The UAV J3 Cub, designed for weed detection, incorporates a downward-pointing camera with resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels and a field of view measuring 28 by 22 degrees. While rotary-wing UAVs are gaining wide acceptance in surveying and surveillance applications, fixed-wing aircraft offer higher payload capacity, longer flight duration, and the ability to cover wider distances than hovering platforms.

The J3 Cub is specifically designed to conduct large area surveys. The ACFR claims that the UAV can generate satellite-type imagery at a far higher resolution and at a lower cost than any satellite currently in orbit.

The UAV J3 Cub

Ladybird, a mobile ground robot, can conduct a full range of autonomous farm sensing and manipulation tasks.

Through the use of photogrammetry — a method of making measurements from photographs in order to recover the exact positions of surface points — the J3 Cub can precisely map an observed terrain. The combined imagery and terrain estimates could be useful for a variety of agricultural survey applications, according to the ACFR.

Perhaps the most intriguing ACFR project is “Robotic Rover,” a robot that acts like a cattle dog to herd and manage cows. The system is still under development, but researchers note that cows have responded well to a prototype used in preliminary field trials.

Robotic Rover incorporates high-resolution 2D and 3D sensors, as well as GPS technology, to herd cows into specific field locations. Robotic Rover has been designed to move about at approximately the same pace as the cows that it herds. The approach aims to make cows feel more comfortable around the robot, increasing the likelihood that they will follow its herding motions.

Although project researchers are confident that robotic herding systems will eventually become a widely used technology, real-life cattle dogs aren’t likely to lose their jobs anytime soon given the fact that Robotic Rover’s current price tag is approximately $1 million (Australian; $740,000 U.S.).

AgBot the weed killer

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is another major Australian academic institution working with the nation’s agriculture industry and technology companies to develop farm-focused robots. QUT’s showcase project is AgBot, a mobile robot that’s designed to serve as a weed detector and killer that possesses greater accuracy and requires less herbicide than a conventional ground- or aircraft-based spraying system.

Introduced in 2013 and regularly updated since then, AgBot is a lightweight, golf cart-sized robot that was specifically designed to reduce the environmental impact of weeding.

The project, led by the university’s QUT Robotics Lab, was developed to revolutionize broad-acre farming via a new class of small, intelligent, cooperative, autonomous robots. Using inexpensive sensors to target and spray weeds as soon as they emerge, AgBot is capable of covering a 4,000 hectare (9.8 acre) wheat farm during a single operating session. Eradicating weeds early requires smaller amounts of toxic chemicals, leading to potentially significant savings, both financially and environmentally, according to Tristan Perez, a QUT robotics professor.

Perez claimed that multiple lightweight systems like AgBot will prove essential to the long-term productivity, profitability, and sustainability of farms in Australia and elsewhere. He estimated that weed-eradicating robots could save the Australian wheat industry up to $620 million (Australian; $455 million U.S.) per year.

Australia’s top agricultural robot innovator

Andrew Bate is arguably Australia’s top private sector agribotics innovator. Bate’s vision to develop robotic farming technology was inspired by his experience working as a grain and cattle farmer near Emerald, Central Queensland.

Bate, a QUT graduate, has spent nearly his entire life in agriculture. Trained as an agronomist, he is passionate about ensuring that future generations of Australian farmers have a vibrant future.

The new Swarm Farms Robot can coordinate its actions

A new Swarm Farms robot is designed to work alongside other robots.

Bate collaborated with QUT on Agbot’s development and commercialization. He is currently CEO of Swarm Farm Robotics, a Queensland-based company that he and his wife Jocie, an agricultural economist, established to specialize in the development and testing of robotic farm machinery.

In March, Swarm Farm unveiled the world’s first robot designed to work with other spraying robots in swarms. The new robot, powered by a small diesel engine, is designed to run completely autonomously using GPS guidance. This approach promises to allow large farms to deploy spraying robots in an organized manner and could ultimately help to fill the rural labor shortage that’s currently plaguing Queensland.

“The robots are adjustable in height, with a simple design, and can be used on a variety of crops from tree crops and vegetables to sugar cane, cotton and broad acre crops,” Bate stated. “They’re more like a tool carrier, and they can be used for weed spraying and spot spraying.”

He added that the robots provide absolute repeatability and accuracy.

More Agricultural Robot Developments:

“The fact we can slow down and stop allows us to do smarter things with existing crop protection products that’s just sitting there because it doesn’t fit current methods,” Bate said.

Swarm Farm has also developed automated refilling stations for the robot’s sprayer mechanism.

Bate is now looking forward to developing robots that can perform other farming tasks, such as detecting and treating snails in a wheat crop, or pruning a berry or grape crop. Bate’s business philosophy is best expressed with a Henry Ford dictum quoted on the Swarm Farm website: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”