Professor of Robotics, Salah Sukkarieh and his team of engineers from the Australian Centre of Field Robotics (ACFR) have undertaken trials in Fiji and Samoa using the low-cost robot, Digital Farmhand, to provide an inexpensive way for small-scale farmers to increase crop yields, particularly nutritious foods.
Digital Farmhand uses smartphone technology to assess plant health, and smart tools to conduct spraying and weed control, perform crop analytics and automate simple farming tasks.
An ageing farming population, a decline in available labour and the lack of real-time crop intelligence are realities for the agricultural industry in rural Australia and many of its neighbouring countries, and these issues have increasingly led to low productivity and crop losses.
In Fiji and Samoa, for example, subsistence farmers are experiencing major food shortages and need to find cost-efficient, low-maintenance solutions to increase food production, lower costs and improve quality.
Farmers in the Pacific region face numerous production constraints, a lack of information about crop health and management, challenges in communication and coordination (resulting in variable availability of produce in markets) as well as environmental challenges.
Simple techniques such as soil testing and analysis are rarely undertaken, and farming is almost non-existent during the monsoon season when weed growth is prolific.
Interestingly, many of the challenges faced by overseas farmers are similar to those experienced by Australian small-scale, rural and remote farmers.
The team at ACFR sought to further understand these problems and provide a low-cost solution to bring farming in the Pacific regions into the digital age.
Digital Farmhand’s modular design is based on the use of low-cost sensors and computing and manufacturing techniques that allow farmers to easily maintain and change the platform to suit their needs.
Like a tractor, Digital Farmhand uses a hitch mechanism which allows the attachment of various implements like a seeder, sprayer and weeder.
As many of the farms are located in remote areas, the robot is easy to maintain and uses basic manufacturing techniques enabling it to be repaired locally with off-the-shelf parts.
“Digital farmhand has the potential to help farmers by providing valuable information about soil and crop health, and management. It also has the potential to undertake traditionally labour-intensive activities such as weeding to reduce seasonal impacts on farming,” says Professor Sukkarieh.
The platform combines smartphone technologies, machine learning and low-cost robotics to provide an economical solution for farmers.
The robot’s sensing technology and computation technology reads crop information in real-time via a smartphone and provides an immense amount of data to the grower. For example, data processed on the phone itself can identify a type of pest or fungus that might be on the plant, signalling to Digital Farmhand to spray the correct type of fungicide.
This innovation allows farmers to use readily-available technology and low-cost robotics to bring them into the future.
Not without its challenges, a core aim of the current Digital Farmhand trials is to find solutions that meet the requirements of a particular region and the level of technology available to those farmers.
In partnership with DFAT and AECOM, the team at ACFR is also looking at the education and training support for the Digital Farmhand system to demonstrate to farmers how the technology could be used to improve food quality and nutrition.
“Digital Farmhand really is a fantastic innovation that could bring many benefits to smallholder farmers in developing countries,” says Melissa Collins, International Project Manager at AECOM.
“A further benefit to the people of the Pacific offered by Digital Farmhand is the opportunity to expose, involve and educate people in emerging technologies such as robotics and programming. Access to such learning will not only support Pacific farmers as they try to compete with international producers in their local markets, it will expose the population to otherwise difficult-to-access technology and promote local innovation and development,” Melissa says.