Robot army of weed killers in training

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Photo of man and woman kneeling with machinery

Andrew and Jocelyn Bate look to the future of grain growing with an early version of a prototype agricultural robot undergoing proof-of-concept trials on their property near Emerald, Queensland.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

A vision of grain paddocks swarming with ‘teams’ of lightweight, low-cost robots is moving from science fiction to commercialisation on the Bate family’s 4000-hectare property, 20 kilometres south-west of Emerald in Central Queensland.

The brainchild of Andrew and Jocelyn Bate, this futuristic idea is becoming a hard-wired reality through research the couple initiated with Queensland University of Technology and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

Speaking at a GRDC Grains Research Update at Warra, Queensland, Andrew said the “small, simple” agricultural robot (or AgBot), modelled on existing manufacturing and military robots, is set to begin commercial trials in early 2015.

This follows two years of proof-of-concept trials on the Bates’ farm that have seen the AgBot evolve from a golf-buggy set-up to a self-propelled, three-point linkage bar loaded with computer hardware.

Andrew said the new linkage bar design means the AgBot can be fitted with implements for a range of automated tasks, such as spraying, spreading, seeding and even harvesting.

For the moment, however, the prototype is concentrating on herbicide spraying. Working in the family’s paddocks, the AgBots can be seen from a distance as beams of infrared light moving slowly over chickpeas, wheat, mungbeans and sorghum stubble: the red light revealing where the unit has identified and killed weeds.

The AgBot identifies weeds through WEEDit® optical sensor technology. It can already avoid obstacles and travels at up to 15 kilometres per hour.

Andrew said this slow speed, compared with conventional sprayers, lends itself to thermal weed-control technologies such as microwave and steam, which move slowly to target individual plants.

The $3-million research project, including investment from the couple’s own company, SwarmFarm, also has the aim of linking the AgBots into coordinated gangs or ‘swarms’ that work together. This has already been achieved with basic two-way radio signalling.

Andrew said that three AgBots could do the job of his current sprayer across 3000ha. He said they will cost considerably less than conventional tractor spray-rig set-ups, plus he anticipates savings on fuel and chemical inputs, and reduced soil compaction.

Weighing about 200 kilograms, Andrew said the AgBots would be able to venture into sodden paddocks after rain to treat weeds while they are still small, providing a further cost-saving.


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