Brave new world of robots and drones.
Robotics have the potential to drive big changes in agriculture. A new smallis-good approach could reshape the business.
ANDREW Bate well remembers his lightbulb moment. He was sitting alone one night in the dark cab of his powerful new tractor spraying weeds on the family cropping farm near Emerald, in central Queensland. He recalls thinking about where it was all going to lead. “Machines were getting bigger, wider, heavier and more expensive. There was this mad boom to get more hectares sprayed or harvested in a day,” he says. “I was frustrated with spending more time in my tractor, less time with my family. If the one machine broke down everything stopped.” The 36-yearold Bate was also having trouble with weeds that had become resistant to chemicals. “I started to wonder if we were doing it right; if we couldn’t be more efficient and timely, and do it all at a lower cost by farming in a completely different way. I decided then that everything had got way past the point of a farming system that was best for the growing of a good crop.”
Bate is no drop-out greenie. A trained agronomist, he was the son of an Emerald farmer whose family had scraped enough cash together to buy a farm a generation earlier from panning and digging for sapphires on the nearby gemfields. After spending
some time farming in the Ord River in northern Australia, he returned to work on his family’s 5000ha cattle property Bendee.
As he thought about the challenges ahead, Bates realised that bigger was not necessarily better when it came to equipment. He began thinking about using new technology in the form of small unmanned robots. Digital smart automation, he believed, could hold the key to new and improved farming systems. Instead of using one large expensive tractor, farmers could use swarms of small, simple, clever robotic machines. He and his wife Jocie, an agricultural economist, set up Swarmfarm Robotics. Working with Sydney University’s Centre for Field Robotics and Queensland University of Technology, he developed a new robot to spray for weeds. Weighing only 200kg, and measuring about five metres across, the self-propelled device can be powered by either an electric or a diesel motor.
Out on his farm at Gindie, 300km south of Emerald, Bate has two of his prototype robots at work in the field killing weeds. His previous weed sprayer weighed 21 tonnes, measured 36 metres across its spray unit, guzzled diesel by the bucketload and needed a paid driver who would only work limited hours. Two robots working together on Bendee effortlessly sprayed weeds in a 70ha mung-bean crop last month. Their infra-red beams picked up any small weeds among the crop rows and sent a message to the nozzle to eject a small chemical spray. Bate hopes to soon use microwave or laser technology to kill the weeds. Best of all, the robots do the work without guidance. They work 24 hours a day. They have in-built navigation and obstacle detection, making them robust and able to decide if an area of a paddock should not be traversed. Special swarming technology means the robots can detect each other and know which part of the paddock has already been assessed and sprayed.
Another program built into the robots by Bate and his collaborators means the machines can also detect when they are running out of water, chemicals or fuel, and go to a nearby tanker to refuel. They can dock with the tank without aid, fill up and return to their midnight spraying. “That’s where the swarm comes in,” says Bate. “They can communicate with each other, know what each other is doing and change their behaviour and actions accordingly. They won’t come in to refuel at the same time and if one has found an area with many weeds and is taking longer to cover it, the other will adapt its grid pattern to compensate.”
Bate is also working on robots that can do other farming tasks such as detect and treat snails in a wheat crop or individually prune a berry or grape crop. But there are still many sceptics of his small robot technology. Bate insists it has little to do with saving money on labour but is more about having a different approach to farming. His website quotes Henry Ford’s dictum: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Bate says the future of farming involves finding new programs and applications that are “outside the square”. New technology such as robots and drones is attracting many of a new generation of younger people back from university into agriculture. “It’s not about thinking of a task you do now on your farm and how a robot might replace you; but about throwing out ways of the past, starting with a clean slate,” he says. “It is about thinking what is the ultimately best way I might grow a crop in a totally different way and how might small robots help.”
Bate compares the “mad rush” for farms to get larger and use bigger machines, to a sugar-fuelled fast-food boom. “We had lost sight of the best way to grow crops,” he says. “We were compromising optimal crop growth for machine efficiency and the misconception that bigger is always best.” He points out that the technology which has driven big productivity gains in agriculture over the past 50 years – new high-yielding crop varieties, greater chemical and fertiliser use, minimum tillage farming, better disease and weed control – has now effectively plateaued. He is also concerned that big tractors that more than $250,000 each and the flood of chemicals being used are spawning new problems. They encourage soil compaction and weed resistance, a problem that costs the Australian grain industry more than $200 million a year.
Scalability is another bonus that the robots will provide. For example, a small farmer in a third-world country may not be able to afford the latest big tractor, he but could afford a smaller robot to do the job. By contrast, a big grain farmer in northern NSW might have 36 units working together in one paddock. “This is a paradigm shift in farming,” Bate says.
His small-is-beautiful approach opens up other possibilities. “I remember a scientist once saying at a field day that if you could take all the lower leaves off a sorghum plant during the growing season and end up with better yield,” he says. “All of us farmers laughed and wondered if he expected us farmers to go down each row of the paddock with a pair of scissors. But robots that work quietly in the field all day and night while we are sleeping might make that sort of thing financially and practically possible; those are the gains in productivity we are going to get in the future…”
Swarmfarm Robotics founder Andrew Bate with a prototype weed-spraying robot, one of a class of new machines that could reshape Australian agriculture