Professor Salah Sukkarieh from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) has visited farms all over the world. Everywhere he goes, from the terraced hills of Indonesia to the plains of regional NSW, he hears a similar story: life for farmers can be tough.
Wherever they work, farmers face many of the same challenges. They struggle to find workers, to maximise yields while caring for their land, to keep costs low and produce food cheap enough to satisfy customers.
Professor Sukkarieh and his team at ACFR, part of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, have developed robots that could transform the way farmers work.
“It’s a rethink in how we do agriculture,” says Professor Sukkarieh. “I want to put technology on the farm that makes farming a lot more sustainable, cleaner and healthier.”
As global population levels rise and food security becomes a more pressing issue, it is crucial to develop and embrace smarter farming techniques. In the past, research has focused on large-scale commercial agriculture, developing expensive technology and ever-larger vehicles.
Professor Sukkarieh is approaching the problem from a different angle. He is developing smaller, cheaper robots that smallholder farmers can use to work more productively, efficiently and sustainably.
Traditionally, farmers make decisions based on whole paddocks. If there’s a pest problem with a few crops, they spray everything to ensure the issue doesn’t spread. Robotic technology makes it possible to detect the precise location of the problem and spray only the crops affected. That means lower costs, lower environmental impact and a more abundant harvest.
The work of ACFR has seen engineers collaborating with agronomists, farmers, business consultants and educators to create systems to help farmers all over the world.
There’s SwagBot, the world’s first custom robot to work with grazing livestock, and RIPPA, a sturdy bot that can wheel through fields and orchards, monitoring and caring for vegetables and fruit to improve yield production. Digital Farmhand is a smaller, cheaper robot that can be adapted for seeding, spraying and weeding, taking the guesswork out of critical farming decision-making. All are battery-operated or solar electric.
Professor Sukkarieh and his team have trialled the technology on farms in Australia and are also working with farmers in Indonesia, Samoa and Fiji.
"Farmers in developing countries face the same sort of problems as Australian farmers,” says Professor Sukkarieh. “It's worse, because they don’t have access to the same agronomy advice.”
When robots enter any industry, there can be concerns about job losses for humans. But agriculture is facing a crippling labour shortage. “This is an industry where robots are a good news story,” Professor Sukkarieh says. “They can help farmers reduce costs and make better decisions.
“The technology is not the end goal. The end goal is understanding what people need from the technology.”