QUEENSLAND farmers Andrew and Jocie Bate are revolutionising the use of robots in agriculture.
The founders of SwarmFarm said they realised changes needed to be made to farming practices, to help work towards a more sustainable future.
"Machines were getting so much bigger, heavier, and quite cumbersome,” Mrs Bate said.
"Our spray rigs and headers have gotten so much heavier, and compaction on our soil was enormous.
"We just thought, why are we farming this way? We should get back down to the soil and farm from the soil up, instead of a technology down kind of approach.”
The robots, called Swarmbots, use sensors to make everyday farm practices more precise and efficient. Mrs Bate said they were continuously testing in different environments and have a number of different attachments for different practices.
"We've got different attachments. We've got the spraying attachments, however we're quite big on the fact that it's not just a spraying machine, it's actual a platform play for new and exciting technology,” she said.
"With low-hanging fruit it's mostly spraying, whether it be between the rows of a vineyard or an orchard.
"We can also do fertiliser spreading, we've got a mowing attachment, we've been running on a turf farm here in Emerald.”
She said SwarmFarm had received inquiries from a number of vastly different industries. The couple is passionate about their work and research being done on the farm. SwarmFarm is located at Gindie in central Queensland.
"We thought we'd need to have our researchers based out of Brisbane or Sydney and to fly them out whenever we needed testing done,” she said.
"But very quickly we realised it is the connection with agriculture.
"It's the connection into the paddock that sets us aside from other people doing robotics.
"Quite quickly we realised we needed to get our guys out of the office and into the paddock. They've actually got to get dirt on their boots! Because you can run things in simulation, and then as soon as you get them in the paddock they don't actually work as they had planned.
"It's the variations of the paddocks and of the industries that they're going into which is a complexity. Technically it's the same thing, you're driving up a road turning at a corner and coming back, but every situation is so vastly difference. It keeps them real being on the farm and actually have to step outside and run what they're testing.”
Tom Wyatt is one of the engineers working on farm with the Swarmbots.
"At the moment, most growers generally have one big, complex and very expensive machine that roars around at high speeds doing the same job across big areas,” he said.
"SwarmFarm's vision is instead to have a few small, simple robots that can poke along all day and night, and can do a much more accurate and precise job.
"The primary goal of robotics is not to save on labour costs, but instead to allow growers to do new things through precision.”
Mr Wyatt said one of the ways the precision of these robots was being used was for weed control in broadacre crops.
"Spot spraying cameras have been around for 20 years, but have never quite entered the mainstream despite their promise and potential. The cameras use infra-red light to detect and then spray weeds,” he said.
"In comparison to blanket spraying the entire paddock, using these cameras, as little as five per cent of the area of a paddock needs to sprayed to kill every weed. The cost of chemical is the biggest cost in broad acre weed control, and so this technology offers immediate and significant savings.
"However it also allows stronger rates to be used on hard-to-kill weeds, unlocks all new chemical options which before were too expensive, allows larger and more effective droplets to be delivered to the plant and dramatically reduces the risk of spray drift.”
Mr Wyatt said the cameras could only reliably detect every weed when travelling at slow and constant speeds, and at relatively stable distance from the ground, which could be hard to achieve on a wide machine that could only cover ground while an operator was sitting in the cab. This is where the robots come in.
"It's perfect for a fleet of small robots that can just trawl along slowly night and day and not miss a weed,” he said.
"All the while these robots are light enough to not cause soil compaction, and smart enough to know when to stop for weather or when is the best time to dock and fill up.
"The beauty of having a fleet is that if something does go wrong, its no matter; there are still five other robots getting the job done, and the robots are simple enough to easily swap out the broken part and have it back in the paddock quickly.”
In order for the robots to work in the field, a GPS is attached attached to a ute to map out the area. The data is then entered into in-house software and sent wirelessly to the robots. The robots are then controlled and monitored through an iOS and Android app called SwarmView®.
"While they are out in the paddock the robots watch for any obstacles in their path, monitor operating temperatures and pressures, keep an eye on the weather for any changes, and automatically return to a docking station for refill when more fuel or product is needed,” Mr Wyatt said.
"The robots also keep in contact with each other to keep themselves separated and coordinate best times for refill. The robots keep on working until the job is done or until the operators attention is required.
"So far these robots have been used in broad acre cropping, on remote mining sites, and in the turf industry, with many more applications in planning.”
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