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Food & Agriculture

Robotics in agriculture – where are we now and where are we headed?

4 Feb 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

Australia’s agtech sector has seen impressive growth in recent years, with $1.7 billion worth of venture capital spent in 2017; and a further string of VC megadeals continuing the momentum well into 2018 and 2019.

Robotics has been at the forefront of this growth with some notable innovations – both already on shelves and in the pipeline.

Vegetable crops, tree crops, grazing living stock and grains have all seen their fair share of technological advancement; with early adopters enjoying an operational advantage and maximising their yield.

Although outright disruption may not have occurred just yet, Professor Salah Sukkarieh of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney explains to Informa ahead of the Agtech Summit 2020 that it may be on the near horizon.

“We are seeing a really good rate of market activity and penetration with agtech in general and the data suggests we are on the verge of more mainstream usage of robotic and AI technology,” Prof. Sukkarieh told Informa.

“Local farmers are seeing the value robotics and AI can bring in terms of increasing their crop yield, reducing crop variability and other key metrics.

“They know they can get better information about individual plants and make easier and quicker decisions in terms of things like prescriptive spraying and selective harvesting.

“I expect with the recent environmental and climate pressures we have experienced here in Australia, “late adopters” may see even a greater need to follow suit.”

Any notable new innovations?

“In the grazing livestock subsector, drones have been used for quite some time over large cattle stations, along with using AI techniques to detect invasive plants.

“Farmers have asked for solutions that can eradicate the weeds alongside the drones that can detect them. This has led to the development of ground robots, like Swagbot, which has better precision and can detect and spray individual weeds.

“Of course, there are challenges with this technology like undulating terrain, moving animals and rocks to clamber over which are currently being ironed out, but it’s certainly one to watch for in the future.”

What else is on the horizon?

“As a sector, we’ve now amassed around twelve-years’ worth of R&D and intel in the horticulture robotic space.

“We’re moving from the R&D platform ‘Ladybird’ robot to the operational prototype ‘RIPPA’, to the  commercialization of the  technology called the ‘Digital Farmhand’, which goes up and down vegetable and tree crop rows and undertake collision avoidance.

“It detects individual plants and determines yield and health; also looking out for weeds and removing them with mechanical tools or spray.”

What are the sector’s biggest pain points currently?

“More work needs to be done with grains and we’re looking at these problems with our research now.

“’Green on green’– i.e. eliminating weeds that grow amongst other crops of the same colour (without using chemicals) – also continues to pose a challenge for vegetable crop farmers.

“A detection tool that tackles this will no doubt have a significant impact on the reduction of chemicals and increase in yield.

“In the tree crop sector, detecting or counting flowers or fruit on a tree and using a robotic platform to do harvesting is also a substantial opportunity for agtech innovators.”

How soon will we be getting these sorts of innovations on farms?

“There is no a one-size-fits-all answer to this, as progress has been seen at varying rates within different farming subsectors.

“Broadacre and row crops have seen greater saturation of agtech generally, whereas grazing livestock has been slower in terms of uptake.

“But looking at the sector as a whole, the progress is very encouraging.”

Any commercialisation issues?

“Commercialisation of robotics in agriculture is a difficult tech space because alongside meeting very exact and difficult technical requirements there is also the regulatory and end-user requirements that need to be met.

“There is a combination of making technology easy and affordable whilst balancing that with the need to be robust and precise.

“Thus, we need to take a strategic approach in commercialising the technology – with a focus on how the technology would be adopted operationally on working farms; and how it would scale from the early adopters across to the mass grower market.”

Professor Sukkarieh is a renowned agtech expert based at the University of Sydney. Presenting at the forthcoming Agtech Summit – 17-18 March 2020 in Sydney – he will talk more about his research, commercial activity and what we can look forward to as a sector.

Learn more and register.

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