Robots rolled out to help boost Australian farm competitiveness

Moving carefully along a row of apple trees, two of Australia’s newest agricultural workers check if the fruit is ripe or the soil needs water or fertiliser.

Meet Mantis and Shrimp, agricultural robots being tested to do these tasks and more in a bid to cut costs and improve productivity in Australia’s economically vital farm sector, which exported A$39.6bn (€30bn) of produce in 2012.

Australia is one of the leaders in the field and, with a minimum wage of A$15.96 (€12) per hour and a limited workforce, has a big incentive to use robots and other technology such as unmanned aircraft to improve efficiency. It hopes to tap fast-growing Asian neighbours, where the swelling ranks of the middle class increasingly want more varied and better quality food from blueberries to beef.

“The adoption of new technology is going to be crucial for Australia to maintain its competitiveness in terms of the global agricultural sector,” said Luke Matthews, commodities strategist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. “If we don’t adopt new technology, we can give up on these high-flying ambitions of being the food bowl of Asia.”

Agriculture now accounts for 2% of Australia’s gross domestic product, but the government forecasts it could reach 5% by 2050.

Its growth is important now that the mining sector is slowing.

Australia is the world’s second-biggest wheat exporter; arable farmers are already using technology to improve efficiency, including satellite positioning software to allow farmers to map out land and soil to determine optimal inputs.

Using such technology to optimise fertiliser use can boost profitability at grain farms by 14%, says a study by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney and developer of Mantis and Shrimp, says the next phase aims for robots to do increasingly complex jobs such as watering and ultimately harvesting.

“We have fitted them with a lot of sensors, vision, laser, radar and conductivity sensors — including GPS and thermal sensors,” said Sukkarieh, speaking at his laboratory housing a collection of both ground robots and unmanned air vehicles.

The technology could have the biggest application in horticulture, Australia’s third-largest agricultural sector with exports of $1.71bn (€1.26bn) in the last marketing year, since a fixed farm layout lends itself better to using robots.

Robots and an unmanned air vehicle that are being developed at the University of Sydney had passed field tests at an almond farm in Mildura, Victoria state, said Sukkarieh.

Propelled by sets of wheels and about the height of a man, the robots were named after the native Mantis shrimp because of the marine crustacean’s 16 different colour receptors, capable of detecting up to 12 colours.

Humans only have four, three of which pick up colours. This capacity to recognise colour already allows the robots to sense whether fruit is ripe.

The data can then be processed by computer algorithms to determine what action the robot should take. This could be to water or apply fertiliser or pesticides, or to sweep and prune vegetation, and eventually the aim is to harvest the crop.


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