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.

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Story by Sue Neales An­drew Bate will speak about robot and drone tech­nol­ogy in agri­cul­ture at The Aus­tralian’s Global Food Fo­rum in Mel­bourne on April 15.

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

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