Robocrop offers precision warfare on weeds

European technology - Robocrop may have the measure of

By Alec Nicol

"We"ve crossed the threshold with the guidance system, now we need to learn how to use it..."

Malcolm Taylor of Agropraisals is giving growers at research updates in eastern Australia a frank assessment of the latest piece of technological wizardry to enter the farm gate - Robocrop.

Robocrop"s European makers believe it will become a valuable tool in the fight against herbicide resistance by allowing precise inter-row tillage, even in cereal crops.

Imported with the support of the GRDC, Garford Farm Machinery, Silsoe Research Institute in Britain and Case IH, Robocrop is undergoing practical evaluation with the Birchip Cropping Group, the Riverina Plains Inc. and the Victorian DPI Mallee Research Station.

Photo: European technology - Robocrop may have the measure of
precision weed control.

Intended to be accurate enough to till between 20-centimetre row spacings without damaging the crop, Robocrop offers the chance to control resistant weeds, plus allow precisely placed fertiliser, after the crop is established.

At its heart are a digital camera and a computer system, which control a hydraulic side-shift that moves the position of cultivating tines attached to parallelograms for accurate depth control.

The operator pre-programs the computer with the row spacing, and the camera recognises the discernable line of the crop in the row and adjusts the cultivation tines accordingly.

Accurate to 2.5cm on either side of the row, the machine will cultivate at between six and 10 kilometres per hour.

Precisely - hydraulic side-shifts make Robocrop accurate to 2.5cm on either side of the rowPhoto: Precisely - hydraulic side-shifts make Robocrop accurate to 2.5cm on either side of the row.

Although farming groups are still testing it, some questions are already being answered. After tests in establishing cereal crops at Lake Rowan, Burramine and Hay, Mr Taylor is not sure that Robocrop will be useful in row spacings less than 30 centimetres.

"Travelling at 8kmh there"s enough soil thrown to bury the crop," he says. "Moist and stony soil may also be an issue."

There are 50 Robocrops in service in Europe and, while he acknowledges the differences between European and Australian farming systems, both face similar issues.

"European farmers are shortly to face a ban on the use of atrazine and need a tillage system capable of controlling weeds in row crops," Mr Taylor says. "That"s also going to be of use in Australia where we"re dealing with herbicide-resistant weeds.

"However, we face a number of challenges in matching Robocrop to Australian cropping - working in stubble being the most significant. Also, the machine will pick out any discernible line of plants and adjust accordingly. That makes it difficult where crop and weeds are at the same growth stage or where the weeds are in advance of the crop."

Nonetheless, Mr Taylor believes there could still be a role for Robocrop, even though more and more farmers are already adopting guidance systems and moving to precision agriculture.

He says that even the best GPS systems struggle to attain 2cm accuracy consistently. When the pitch and roll of machinery is factored in, and the fact that any error is compounded with every pass of the machine, he says it is unlikely that satellite systems will be able to be as precise as the possibilities being offered by Robocrop.

For more information:
Malcolm Taylor, 03 5872 2892, malcolmt.taylor@bigpond.com

GRDC Research Code: AGR 00001, program 4

Region North, South, West