Researchers predict farm robots will be common within 5 years

GROUND robots will be operating on Australian farms within five years, a senior robotics researcher has predicted.

Speaking at the Henty Machinery Field Days, Australian Centre for Field Robotics senior research fellow Robert Fitch said agricultural robots would increase land and labour productivity. Dr Fitch was a keynote speaker at the field day’s new Agri-Centre, which showcased the latest in autonomous technology and research on September 23-25.

The Australian Centre for Field Robotics comprises 40 researchers and is the largest field robotics and intelligent systems group in the world, working with flying, ground, underwater and space robots.

Researchers demonstrated solar-electric powered robot called the Ladybird, which was developed for mapping, detection weeding and harvesting in the vegetable industry. The Ladybird’s lift-up skirts revealed a variable wheelbase and robotic arm.

Dr Fitch said robots had potential applications for monitoring crop conditions, stock location and welfare, weed and pest detection, and animal tracking. He predicted ground robots would be used operatively on broadacre farms within five years.

“Robots will do crop intelligence, weed and pest maintenance, harvest tree crops and vegetables,’’ he said. “They will ultimately transform the way food is grown, processed and delivered.

“Australia is leading the world in this technology – it’s an exciting time for robotics in agriculture.’’

Australian Association of Unmanned Systems director and aeronautical engineer Andrew Lucas said the industry was interested in robotics programmed with a number of fixed alternative actions.

“We are not trying to create something that is out of the control of humans – we won’t have out-of-control autonomous tractors running down gates,’’ Dr Lucas said.

He said robotics in the mining industry was no longer an experimental exercise with autonomous 150 tonne heavy haul trucks, worth about $1 million each, operational in Western Australia.

“This technology is novel in the agricultural sector but is a common part of the mining industry with 300-400 autonomous trucks expected to be working in mines within five years,’’ Dr Lucas said.

“They have a forward looking laser which stops the vehicle if there is an obstacle – over the next decade this will get smarter with autonomous water carts and graders all working together.’’

Dr Lucas said a successful trial within a cherry orchard used a small battery powered unmanned aerial vehicle for crop protection to deter fruit bats.

“This intelligent watch dog responds to sensors in the orchard, moving the birds and bats on, then returning to the roost and recharging itself,’’ he said.

“The challenges are to produce a low cost robot with robust sensors, reliability and availability in the agricultural environment, and able to operate safely according to Civil Aviation Safety
Authority rules.’’