Queensland farmers launch commercial farming robots

Andrew and Jocie Bates know robotic technology is the future of farming and they are excited to be holding the key.

The Bates are just a few months away from rolling out robots to commercial farmers, driving a whole new wave of technology and efficiency in all types of agriculture.

The central Queensland grain growers founded SwarmFarm Robotics at Gindie, south of Emerald, eight years ago when they realised that many traditional farming methods were no longer effective or sustainable long term.

“We’ve been farming here since the late 1970s — we had zero till, controlled traffic and we were fairly efficient at what we were doing but we thought where to next?” Andrew said.

“The mining industry here meant we struggled with permanent staff and everyone was buying bigger and bigger machinery and equipment, yet the equipment was so big it wasn’t as effective — and herbicide resistance was becoming a huge problem.”

Andrew thought robots were the answer to using herb­icides more effectively and started looking into the technology.

“Driverless cars weren’t even being talked about yet but there were some driverless dump trucks in the WA mines,” Andrew said.

The Bateses learnt some valuable information and lessons through the university sector and developed a clear vision of where they wanted to go.

“To meet the needs of a rapidly growing human population, we need to grow more food than ever before,” Andrew said.

“Bigger machines are not the answer, smarter machines are.”

TEE OFF

THE Bateses wanted to create a small, simple machine that did simple tasks very well.

The initial concept began as an autonomous golf buggy, which later progressed to the base robot they have now.

It is an open interface robot, a platform to potentially carry any type of farm equipment, making it suitable for all types of agriculture, ranging from broadacre cropping to horticulture and turf farms.

“The base platform opens the innovation to anybody at a grassroots level,” Andrew said.

“It can have a fertiliser spreader attached, a sprayer or a mower, and in years to come there will even be a robot for deep ripping.”

SwarmFarm has a team of permanent staff working to refine the technology.

Jocie said they had raised about $4 million in seed funding over three years to get to this point.

“Sometimes it feels slow but it’s technology that we have to get right,” she said.

“We are creating software and hardware so when you have elements ranging from radio communications to bits of steel and tyres, hydraulic drive systems, GPS and safety, it’s very complex.”

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A large part of developing the technology was to ensure the robots were easily fixed.

“We want farmers to be empowered to be able to fix their machines again rather than having to get technicians in because there is an error code,” Jocie said.

“We envision local swapnostics centres or spare parts cupboards where farmers can have access to kit without waiting weeks for parts to turn up — time is money.”

The on-farm potential for robots is endless, according to Andrew.

“It’s not about automation, it’s about new farming systems — that is the true benefit of the technology,” he said.

For example, the robots can identify weeds in the paddock and spot spray, reducing the amount of chemicals used and costs. Spot spraying can also break the weed cycle and prevent reinfestation.

Weed-detection cameras have been around for years, but the uptake by farmers has been slow.

“Robots go slowly so the booms are more stable — they are consistent and really good at doing those boring jobs,” Andrew said.

RISE OF THE MACHINES

SWARMFARM has recently partnered with Bosch in Victoria where its engineering and design teams are building the robots.

“We’ve gone past prototyping and the robots have proven themselves in the field but now the commercial rollout needs to happen,” Andrew said.

“SwarmFarm needs to grow quickly and our first six machines are already committed to go out.”

It currently takes eight weeks to build a robot.

The first customers have been hand-picked to take the technology on to ensure quality control as the rollout takes place.

“We’ve kept marketing to a minimum because the last thing we wanted was to get people all excited before the technology was ready,” Jocie said.

“But we will take orders now for those who want to be early adopters.”

The price of the robots is undisclosed. They will be under a monthly operating lease that includes servicing fees.

Andrew said Australia was leading the world in robotic technology and would set the stage for how the technology was adopted around the world.

“Some companies are now too big to innovate,” he said.

“We are now in the process of raising investment capital to grow the business and are one of the only companies in the world that has robots commercially working on farms.

“We are real people and these robots have real dents and scratches in the side of them from working in the field. You can’t build anything robust until you are in the field.”

Andrew said SwarmFarm was a team effort. “We are building this technology for the world and we are focusing on things that make a difference,” he said. “We are extremely proud of that.”

Source: The Weekly Times –

26 April 2018