Queensland research pioneering farm robotics

Photo of Andrew Bate

Owner and founding director of SwarmFarm Andrew Bate at ‘Bendee’, his 4000-hectare property at Gindie, south-west of Emerald, Queensland.

Could robots soon be weeding, planting and managing crops in the northern region? According to researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), such intelligent machines could be available to Australian growers within a decade, with the potential to revolutionise farming as we know it in the north and elsewhere.

With robotics already established in the mining and manufacturing industries, this field of technology is now expected to do the same for agriculture. Research underway in QUT's Agricultural Robotics Program is paving the way for this transformation.

The research started as a collaboration between QUT, SwarmFarm in the Central Highlands, and the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, and is being carried out in the northern grains region. The scope of the program has been extended with additional funding from the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

The aim of the program is to revolutionise broadacre farming by creating a new class of small, autonomous robots to help growers do their jobs more efficiently and increase farming production and profits.

"Through improved productivity and efficiency, robots will ultimately help growers ensure their participation in global food production is both competitive and sustainable," says QUT professor of robotics Tristan Perez.

AgBot prototype

A main focus of the QUT program is the development of a world-first multi-role AgBot (agricultural robot), which is expected to play a vital role in the day-to-day operation of farms across Australia within the next 10 years.

"AgBot is a move away from large, expensive machines, to lightweight, low-cost machines specifically designed to be better for productivity and the environment," says robotics researcher and executive dean of the Science and Engineering Faculty at QUT, Professor Gordon Wyeth.

It is a move that cannot happen soon enough for Andrew Bate, northern grower and founding director of SwarmFarm, where QUT has been trialling a prototype for the past two years.

Speaking at the GRDC northern region update in August last year, Mr Bate said that the dilemma for most growers in the future will be "how can farming systems adapt to increase productivity, while reducing the financial costs and environmental impacts?"

Mr Bate approached QUT after becoming increasingly frustrated with the inefficiency of his own farming machinery. On his 4000-hectare wheat farm at Gindie, south-west of Emerald, Queensland, he has been using a single large and heavy chemical weed sprayer that is unable to traverse his paddocks immediately after rain when the weeds are small.

"Bigger machinery isn't necessarily better," he says.

He and his wife Jocelyn initiated and partly funded a $1.8 million project in collaboration with QUT to develop the AgBot prototype – a golf-buggy-sized, lightweight robot that can use low-cost sensors to navigate around a property the size of SwarmFarm, eradicating small weeds and causing minimal damage to soil.

"The idea is to have swarms of these machines working together," Mr Bate says. "So instead of one large tractor you might have six small ones about the size of a ride-on lawn mower. And small ultimately means little or no soil compaction."

It also means friendlier herbicide application. Traditionally growers have applied herbicide to the entire field, making no distinction between crop and weed, so the herbicide can easily become airborne or, if it rains, leach into groundwater.

Professor Perez says: "AgBot technology means more targeted application. Using cameras and vision-recognition software, they can not only detect but also classify weeds, which enables adapting weed treatment on the fly, whether it is mechanical or chemical. In the latter case they can adapt the droplet size and nozzle height depending on the local weather conditions. This can significantly reduce herbicide drift."

This means less chemicals will need to be used in the paddock, which is better for the environment and also better for the farm budget.

"We have recently completed an economic analysis that shows a potential reduction of 40 per cent in costs per hectare for weed management in terms of energy, labour and efficiency of applied herbicide," Professor Perez says.

He also notes that robots can work around the clock and would change the level of expertise and skills required on-farm: "Robots could potentially help to attract a younger generation, or introduce new skills to the agricultural workforce."

Professor Perez says robots also allow farm operations to be combined with data collection and analysis: "Robots may not only act on the crop and weeds, but also collect large amounts of data. If the appropriate digital infrastructure is developed, analysis of big data in conjunction with novel decision systems could further reduce input costs and increase yield and robustness. We are currently working at QUT on an interdisciplinary effort to create new lines of research to enable this."

"Like the internet and mobile phones a decade ago, it is hard to envisage the full potential of this new technology and the economic, environmental and social benefits it can bring."

More information:

Professor Tristan Perez
0447 590 011
tristan.perez@qut.edu.au
www.roboticvision.org/applications/robots-for-agriculture

Andrew Bate
SwarmFarm
www.swarmfarm.com

A video of QUT’s Professor Gordon Wyeth talking about AgBot is available at:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLHM4SOlWwM

Or, watch below.

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