February 7, 2014

Robots open the door to more profitable farming

Robots are rapidly moving out of science fiction and on to the farm. Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligence Systems at the University of Sydney, says they could soon be helping farmers to cut costs and increase yield - and that now is the time to prepare.

As Australian farmers take advantage of growing demand for high quality produce in Asia, Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligence Systems at the University of Sydney, says the challenge for many will be keeping up with demand.

This is where automation can help.

“Already, many Australian broadacre farmers are using satellite-based auto-steer technology to sow, spray and harvest more efficiently, which is a relatively easy application for automatic control,” says Sukkarieh. “The more difficult applications are in tree crops and soft vegetables, though funding from the horticulture industry has helped us to address many of the challenges. Now we’re developing robotic devices and intelligent systems that can perceive and understand their environment, make informed decisions about any actions required and then carry out those actions, all without direct human input.”

Robots are set to play an increasingly important role in helping farmers to cut costs and increase efficiency and yield.

“The most expensive aspect of any farming operation is harvesting, so there’s a lot of interest in this area and a lot of work has been done,” says Sukkarieh. “However, this is also the most complex element in robotic development. We’ve built sensing systems that can detect fruit but, as yet, we haven’t been able to develop a robot with the dexterity of a human hand or the ability to detect the subtle changes in pressure that enable us to grab a piece of fruit without squashing it. The first practical application in this area will be augmented automation, where a machine can cut harvesting time by identifying fruit that’s ready to pick.”

Soon, farmers using a tablet or smart phone will be able to control or monitor robots remotely as they estimate yield and identify pests, weeds and diseases. And, in the future, robots could even be herding cattle. “We’ve been able to herd 60 dairy cows three times, so it was a repeatable experiment,” says Sukkarieh. “The farmer was impressed because the cows were less agitated than when they’re herded by other methods and they moved in a very calm way, which has ramifications in terms of the quality of the milk. These kinds of robots could also carry infrared, thermal and other sensors to help farmers keep track of important information such as when an animal is unwell or calving.”

Getting ready for the robots

Sukkarieh predicts that these kinds of machines will be commercially available within the next five years. But, if farmers are going to make the most of opportunities as they arise, they need to think ahead.

“The architecture of a farm has to change to accommodate automation,” he says. “For example, the wheat and cotton farmers using auto-steer technology most effectively laser-levelled their farms and have unobstructed visibility of the sky so that the tractor’s sensors have clear access to the satellites. Farmers in other sectors should be thinking now about how they can make their farms ‘robot ready’- for example, making sure that the ground is level and that pathways are cordoned off so that autonomous or robotic vehicles can move freely up and down. They might also need to consider a few operational changes.”

The preparation, new infrastructure and the machinery itself will require substantial investment but, as Sukkarieh points out, the benefits can be significant and wide-ranging. “Robots can help farmers save on things like fuel, fertiliser and pesticides as well as labour so I think that most could expect to see a worthwhile return on their investment.”

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