The technology of farming

WORDS Linda Moon

Technology is changing the face of farming and Australian researchers are at the forefront of farm robot intelligence worldwide. By gathering on-farm data for crop and livestock monitoring, they’re working to reduce risk, increase yields and support small farmers by taking over repetitive manual tasks.

RIPPA (picture above) lumbers through the vegetable aisles like a benign Dalek, spraying pests and weeding with a robotic arm. Collecting information on each individual plant using sensors on its’ underbody, the AgBot symbolises a new horizon for farming.

The progeny of Professor Salah Sukkarieh and his team at the University of Sydney, the solar-powered AgBot and other prototypes (Ladybird, Di-Wheel, Mantis and Shrimp) are Australia’s first agricultural robots for deployment in the fruit and vegetable cropping industry.

Sukkarieh, a professor of robotics and intelligence systems, is at the forefront of farm robot intelligence across the world. Transferring automation technologies already available in other industries to agriculture, his objective is to help farmers take the risk out of production and increase yield. ‘The idea was to build a robot that could operate 24 hours, 7 days a week, and do specific tasks,’ he says. These include reducing labour intensity and inputs like pesticides, water and fertilisers.

A key function of the robots is crop intelligence. After gathering data on individual plants —like colour, texture, shape, growth and pest species—the info is applied to algorithms that determine an appropriate course of action.

99 per cent of Australia’s 134,000 farms are family-owned and operated according to the National Farmers Federation, and, 50 per cent of farmers work 49 hours or more a week according to the ABS.

‘A lot of farmers are going out of business because they can’t keep up with it,’ Sukkarieh says. ‘So we‘re building a system that will help them.’

Other AgTech innovations set to transform farming include livestock tracking, pasture monitoring tools, remote sensing using satellites and drones, the internet of things, and remote management of and access to data. In the thick of such developments, David Lamb—a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Precision Agriculture—and his colleagues at the University of New England, are overseeing $18 million worth of AgTech research projects around the country.

The thrust of these projects is acquiring and using information: ‘anything that is sensible and detectable remotely or in proximity,’ Lamb says. ‘Our game is to bring it all together and use it to some aim whether it’s to forecast yield, improve productivity or manage pest and disease.

Among the projects Lamb is working on are soil moisture sensors and sap flow sensors (sap indicates the health of trees). UNE researchers led by Professor Andrew Robson have also used satellite to map, chart and forecast yields in crops like avocados and sugar. ‘It works on the vigour signature of the canopy at strategic times of year,’ Lamb explains. ‘The satellite collects imagery, and you develop signatures that link those at certain key times in the development with the ultimate yield. Once you calibrate it, you can then turn it back into a predictive mode.’

This ability to detect and quantify such variables allows for targeted, prescriptive applications of nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and water. Lamb gives the example of cotton. ‘If you irrigate only where you need it rather than flood irrigate a field, you can reduce water consumption by 30 by 50 per cent.’

‘In one form or another these technologies and processes can make a profound difference to the bottom line of farmers whether it’s improving their production derived income or reducing the cost of inputs. The tactical value of the tools can save time, and from workflow there’s a safety aspect. There’s quite a few different angles that all point to some kind of savings benefit.’

With the earth’s population predicted to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, food production needs to increase by 70 per cent according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation. By helping raise crop intensity and yield, technology will play a major part in assisting farmers in their core role of feeding the world.

Farming is entering the digital.

To read the full story, grab a copy of Sprout Magazine Winter 2017 issue at your local stockist or online, posted directly to your door.

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