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Robotics for farms of the future

15 June 2016
Robotics in farming needs a new vision

With Australia’s farming future looking increasingly reliant on automated technologies, such as low-cost robotics, the industry’s vision should include more support for agri-technology start-ups, retraining growers and agronomists for a digital age, and introducing rural kids to hands-on robotics.   

I suggest the introduction of low-cost on-farm robotics and intelligent systems into teaching and learning strategies for rural and regional schools
Professor Salah Sukkarieh

Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney will discuss these and other automation initiatives in his address at the 2016 ATSE National Technology Challenges Dialogue: Agribusiness 2030 being held this week in Sydney.  The dialogue brings together Australia’s top agriculture and agribusiness leaders and innovators from research, industry and government.

“One of the biggest issues facing the agribusiness sector is how to support the industry with low cost automated technologies as well as the development of these technologies,” said Professor Sukkarieh, an internationally recognised expert in the research, development and commercialisation of field robotic systems.

“It is farmers who are driving the desire for this type of technology because labour is in short supply and expensive, and because there is a greater awareness for improving land productivity as well as other social and environmental needs,” said Sukkarieh, who is at the vanguard of making robots to work on farms.

He noted that robots are already being used to inspect crops, count yields, dig up weeds and, most recently, be new-age shepherds, with a new two-year trial starting to train a ‘farmbot’ to herd livestock, monitor their health and check they have enough pasture to graze on.

“We have to focus on farm robotics and automation technologies – certainly other countries are doing so. Every single country has some sort of automation program in agriculture.”

“Robotics and automation technology provides the grower with greater knowledge of their farm state, and the capability for acting in real-time, thus increasing efficiency, reliability and productivity whilst minimising environmental impact" says the director of research and innovation at the Univerity's Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

“In addition we need to be thinking beyond the robotic devices themselves, and focus on how future farms will be structured and operate as a whole with autonomous systems. This will necessitate the need to investigate ways to support agribusiness start-up companies, as well as educate and manage the transition of current agricultural knowledge into the era of digitisation.”

To address this need Professor Sukkarieh suggests the introduction of low-cost on-farm robotics and intelligent systems into teaching and learning strategies for rural and regional schools will be paramount. To this point he has been developing such technologies and will testing these out at schools later this year.

"There's been a lot of discussion around STEM education and Australia's urgent need to prepare future generations for a new-look work environment. Introducing rural and regional students to hands-on robotic technologies and activities would give them access to exciting new career options,” he concluded.

Victoria Hollick

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