For thousands of years, agriculture has been the backbone of societies across the globe. ‘Living off the land’ is an integral part of what keeps us going, as we reap from the earth nearly everything we eat.

But these elements currently held in the balance are on the brink of change.

By 2050, it is estimated that the world population will reach nearly 10 billion. That is a large number of mouths to feed, but it is an especially alarming prospect when you consider the declining number of farms. Combine that with an ageing farmer population and a range of other problems facing the industry, and it’s clear that the future of farming depends strongly on adapting to new technology and adopting new approaches.

In Australia, we’ve already begun to do just that.

Over the past several years, researchers at leading institutions have been examining the impact that robotics could have on the Australian agricultural industry. As it turns out, the impact is set to be quite remarkable. With sophisticated, autonomous robots taking over farm activity, a new era is likely on the horizon for the agricultural industry.

The State of Australian Farming

The human population continues to boom. And with it, the earth must be relied on to produce more and more food. In fact, humans will consume more food in the next 50 years than in the last 10,000 years combined. Yet, there are fewer farmers to do the work.

SOURCE: Department of Environment, Australia State of the Environment overview, 2016.

To survive and thrive, an agrarian society must adapt to new ways of doing things

With a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labour in agriculture, plus other problems facing farmers, the current methods cannot continue.

But farmers are and always have been innovators. And in Australia in particular, the farming industry has consistently been at the forefront of new advancements. This ensures the nation remains a key player in agricultural growth, and helps keep the vast majority of farms Australian-owned. According to NFF Farm, Fibre & Forestry Facts 2017, “Efficiency gains through new technologies and farm management practices, achieved on the back of research and development, have enabled Australian agriculture to stay a step ahead of our international competitors — returning average productivity growth of 2.7% -a-year over a 30-year period.” This means that even a declining number of farmers hasn’t stopped important agricultural achievements.

So, what’s the next step forward in the Australian farming industry?

Enter the Robots

Automation is the new frontier in farming, both in Australia and abroad and it’s not just in reaction to a declining number of farmers or an exploding growth in population. There are a wealth of reasons that automation makes sense for the world of agriculture. With benefits ranging from economic to environmental, adopting automated systems in Australian farms could move the industry forward in an incredible way.

Leading the charge toward agricultural automation are the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) and the Queensland University of Technology. Both have been producing experimental agbots that can precisely distribute chemicals, count flowers or fruit, pick ripe and ready produce, and even herd cattle. 

What are Agbots?

The autonomous robots designed for use in farming have become known as agbots, or agricultural robots. These impressive creations can handle most of the major farming tasks. Self-driving farmbots and intelligent flying drones are capable of surveying and analysing existing farm data and conditions, then delivering the necessary actions. Using sensors, electronics, and software, agbots are extremely smart, and hopefully will get even smarter. It is expected that agbots will soon be able to collect and report on such things as soil and crop health. This is already beginning with two ACFR bots known as Shrimp and Mantis, small rovers capable of mapping the location and condition of ripening fruit. These steps forward will eventually take the agbots from performing simple tasks to intelligently prescribing solutions for farmers.

Automation doesn’t necessarily mean faster work. In fact, the agbots can move quite slowly, but this enables them to be more precise and exacting in their work. Bots designed to apply herbicides, for example, have been developed to move painstakingly slow if necessary. Using robotic vision, this type of agbot can travel through a paddock, identifying weeds and spraying chemicals directly where needed, even down to an individual leaf. The robot learns what is not identified as a weed, too, and refrains from spraying on a thriving crop. At the University of Sydney’s ACFR, the agbot tasked with this job is a solar powered machine known as Ladybird.

Meet ACFR’s Robots

The ACFR at University of Sydney has developed an entire fleet of agbots, each designed for specific tasks.

RIPPA™, the Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application is the production prototype for the vegetable growing industry. It is light and more rugged, which makes it ideal for work in places such as apple orchards. RIPPA has been used for real-time fruit detection and is able to move easily between rows of trees, even on uneven surfaces. Mounted atop RIPPA is VIIPA™, the Variable Injection Intelligent Precision Applicator, used for high-speed spot spraying of weeds. In this video, you can see how RIPPA recognises heads of lettuce and releases appointed chemicals only in appropriate places.

SwagBot is designed for livestock monitoring and work. It is is an omni-directional electric ground vehicle that can manage hilly, uneven terrain and avoid farm obstacles such as mud and trees. A major benefit on sprawling outback stations, SwagBot can herd cattle and keep them out of dangerous areas. Work is ongoing with SwagBot to enable it to do things such monitor the health of livestock using temperature sensors or movement recognition.

Ladybird is an omni-directional robot powered by batteries and solar energy. Capable of moving up and down paddocks with ease, Ladybird uses a number of sensing systems such as thermal, infrared, and hyperspectral, to monitor and evaluate plant growth. A robotic arm also equips it with the ability to remove weeds or harvest crops.

Farmers working on a small scale may be interested in learning about the Digital FarmHand. A low-cost crop robot prototype, it is able to analyse row crops and automate basic farming chores. As it is being developed, Digital FarmHand will be adaptable to various farm tasks, using a hitch mechanism that can hook up different tools such as a weeder or seeder.

Mantis and Shrimp are two autonomous rovers used for a variety of projects. They are outfitted with sensors that include RADAR and LiDAR, as well as thermal, panospheric, and stereovision cameras. Mantis and Shrimp can produce 3D images that offer an overall picture of crop conditions, which is of great benefit to farmers. James Underwood of ACFR said, “We can automatically detect and count flowers and fruit, and give maps of that information to growers.” This information enables them to identify spots of potential problems and come up with solutions to maximise the crop output.

The ability to be so incredibly precise is one of the major benefits of agbots. They can spend time treating and tending to a single plant, which means more ‘personalised’ attention to a complete crop, and a more thorough approach that keeps the yield healthy. And that attention can take place any time of day. While humans work limited hours and sleep during the remainder, these robots can be on the go 24/7, and many are capable of doing their own resetting/refilling actions using docking stations. This means a virtually endless workforce at the farmer’s command.

Revolutionising the Australian Farm Industry

It may be obvious how agbots can help on a small scale, freeing up the farmer’s time and automating laborious processes. But it is the advantages on a large scale that really point to how agbots can enhance the industry. 

For a long time, farm equipment seemed to be getting bigger, heavier, and more complex. The larger machines got, the more expensive they were to purchase and maintain. And despite their complicated gadgets and systems, the increase in electronic systems onboard meant there was more chance for something to go wrong. These gargantuan machines began to lack the accuracy and precision necessary for efficient farming. While large-sized equipment could cover more ground, it was unable to accurately deploy chemicals or perform delicate manoeuvres. In essence, the machines were often not as effective as the manual work of a farmer.

Agbots are meticulous, combining the methodical nature of machines with a human-inspired artificial intelligence. This is one way in which agbots stand out for their efficacy and efficiency.

Smaller, lighter, and cheaper, agricultural robots are able to perform the same functions with a much greater degree of precision than their standard machine counterparts. With a lightweight structure and a smaller size, the bots are able to move more easily around obstacles such as fences, trees, or rocks. While there’s a lot of complexity within, their somewhat simplified parts can make them less susceptible to breakage than other machines. And best of all, they’re ready to go. When it is time for planting or another time-sensitive farming task, the lightweight bots can be deployed more readily than traditional equipment.

These agbots typically require fewer resources to run successfully. Many have been built to operate on battery power or even solar power, demanding less from fuels, electricity, or other precious, costly resources.

At the current time, agbots are affordable to build, with lowered prices on sensors and other critical elements. Concurrently, there is also massive growth in the related technology, so these parts are becoming better and more sophisticated than ever before. This makes it a boom time to invest in agbot research. Even smaller farms could benefit from a single agbot, with larger properties, especially those producing a single crop, able to scale up the use of bots simply by adding additional units to the field.

Having multiple bots perform the same task could make large-scale farm work incredibly efficient.

Agbots are helping farmers to get the most out of their land. Many farms have areas of their properties which are presently unused. Often, the reason for the lack of use is that the spaces are hard to access, oddly shaped, or unusually placed. With their responsive nature, agbots could provide the necessary work to turn this vacant land into usable space for crops. This could mean an increase in productivity for farmers, and it also results in a better use of existing land---a valuable commodity for producing food.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages for farmers is the manner in which agricultural robots can help to reduce operating costs. Some estimates place a farm at investing approximately $100k dollars yearly on products such as insecticides, herbicides, and fertilisers. Using robots, this amount could be reduced by 40%, due to the bots’ ability to spread chemicals in the precise spots and in exacting volumes.

Alongside the astronomical chemical spending, farmers report tremendous misapplication of these substances. Around 80% of chemicals used may not even end up in the right place. This is a direct financial loss and a waste of resources. The smart, programmed bots learn exactly where to apply a chemical and do so autonomously, even in a highly specific area.

QUT’s Agbot lI is able not only to identify and spray weeds, but using its robotic vision it can decide in real time which weeds should be sprayed with herbicide and which should be removed by mechanical or thermal methods. Effective and efficient, this bot is economical as well; predicted to be able to save Australia’s farm industry a staggering $1.3 billion per year.

The Agricultural Workforce

With all these robots running farms, it might seem that there will be less work for farmers and others in the agricultural industry. But this is not the case. In fact, experts predict that these agbots will enliven the agricultural industry and attract a new type of workforce.

The high-tech nature of these bots means that skilled workers will be needed, both to develop the technology and to manage it in the field. The agbots will require overseeing and a human element for quality control. It is likely that a younger, more tech-savvy breed of Australians may be drawn to this new and exciting field. 

Could Agricultural Robots be the Key to Sustainability?

You cannot think about modern day farming without considering sustainability. We know more than ever that resources are limited and that an expanding population will put pressure on those resources. Researchers and farmers alike are looking for ways to create more sustainable systems for farming in Australia, to ensure the longevity of the land and continuing ample harvests.

Agricultural robots are one answer to the problem of sustainability. The accuracy that they can provide can reduce the amount of chemicals used significantly, helping Australia move to a more organic farming style. 

The lightweight mechanisms and the more precise deployment of chemicals or products also means good things for the soil. The state of the land and condition of the soil are crucial to a civilisation’s survival. Finding ways to promote healthy, aerated soil is so important. The lightweight agbots prevent unnecessary packing down of the soil, while the accurate spray systems prevent soil from becoming overly saturated.

Agbots can also assist farmer to diversify their properties. Monoculture (or the production of a single crop) can be particularly vulnerable to problems. Disease, for instance, can spread quickly, rendering an entire harvest useless. This is bad news for both food production and agricultural profits. With agbots, it can be easier for farmers to manage a variety of crops, giving them the stability of diverse income streams. Rotating crops on one space is also a great way to contribute to healthier, more robust soil.

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From financial boons to green farming, many benefits are arising from the development of autonomous agricultural robots, and the future of farming in Australia is poised for big changes in the coming years. 

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