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  • A robot made of several smaller robotic pieces can autonomously transform its body into shapes best suited for a particular task. 

  • Before the first harvest robot drives through the greenhouses, millions of cucumbers will still be manually picked. However, robots are already working in packing and sorting. Beltech is one of the companies focused on the development of a harvest robot, but the company has already delivered a packing robot as well.

  • New Zealand’s largest apple grower-exporter T&G Global has begun using a robotic harvester on a commercial apple crop in what it describes as a “world-first”.

  • Our vision is insensitive to UV radiation and polarized light. Other species, such as desert ants, on the other hand, use UV and polarized light for navigation. These tiny creatures can cross a few hundred meters in direct sunlight without getting lost.

  • In a greenhouse in Belgium, a small robot moves through rows of strawberries growing on trays suspended above the ground, using machine vision to locate ripe, flawless berries, then reaching up with a 3D-printed hand to gently pluck each berry and place it in a basket for sale.

  • The SwagBot and the more affordable option Digital Farmhand, both from Australian startup Agerris, are now being commercialised and will be available in Australia and overseas.
     
    As a professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney, Salah Sukkarieh and his team have been developing air and ground robotic solutions for the agricultural industry since 2005. Their research at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics resulted in the founding of startup Agerris.


    Prototypes of the SwagBot robot have recently been tested and proved to be useful for weeding, pasture monitoring, soil sampling and animal monitoring. Agerris has since then raised $ 6.5 million from Uniseed, Carthona Capital and BridgeLane Group, for building commercial smaller than tractor-sized robots.


    Low cost robotics for the agricultural industry
    The work on the robots started after Sukkarieh received funding from a cattle grower to look at low cost robotics for the agricultural industry in general. “Because it was a donor fund, I felt that one of the robots we should build was for the grazing livestock industry”, he explains.

    Recently, Agerris was able to test 2 prototypes of the SwagBot. Sukkarieh: “Testing has gone really well. We built 2 versions of the SwagBot and were able to demonstrate them on different grazing livestock farms. The technology has now been spun off to be commercialised.”

    Identifying and eradicating weeds
    Farmers can use the robots for identifying and eradicating weeds, monitor pastures, row and tree crops and for monitoring animal welfare and herd cattle. “SwagBot can traverse around very difficult environments such as undulating terrain, over logs, rocks and ditches”, says Sukkarieh. “It can automatically detect weeds and spray them. SwagBot can also detect individual animals with the hope of detecting any sickness in animals.”

    The SwagBot has sensors on board such as GPS, vision and laser that provide navigation and collision avoidance information to the computing system on board. It works with onboard path planning and control algorithms that help the robot go around obstacles and track animals.

    SwagBot works together with drone
    The SwagBot also has the ability to work together with a drone. The drone provides high level mapping information of the terrain and detecting weeds in general so that SwagBot can define more accurate planning to those weeds and can easier avoid obstacles. It is battery powered and can get about 6 hours of activity before recharge. The recharge can happen at solar points around the farm.


    The other robot Agerris built is the Digital Farmhand. This robot was designed for row and tree crops and gives small-scale farmers around the world a cheaper option. “It is meant to focus on low cost applications for farmers and for mums and dads”, emphasises Sukkarieh. “It has on board sensing and machine learning algorithms that help build models of individual plants. This way we can minimise the amount of chemicals used for spraying and weeding, as well as help farmers understand their crop growth characteristics.”

    Sukkarieh says a better environment management, such as better care of weeds or better management of animals can save farmers money.

    Useful addition to the aging Australian agricultural workforce
    The robots can also be a useful addition to the aging Australian agricultural workforce, he explains. “Working on the land is very hard and farmers are getting older. With the robotics technologies we are building, we are able to assist farmers with the daily chores on the farm.”

    The robots can potentially excite the next generation of farmers as well. Sukkarieh: “We now have a program were the Digital Farmhand is taken to schools for a term and the kids learn how to code the robots in an agriculture setting.”

    Prices not yet known
    Both SwagBot and Digital Farmhand are now being commercialised. Sukkarieh says he cannot yet name a price, since Agerris just started the commercialisation process. “We will know more as we work closely with farmers. However, they are meant to be low cost solutions for all growers.”

    The latest research of Sukkarieh is focusing on non-chemical solutions to weeding and robotics for crop manipulation such as fruit harvesting.

  • Welcoming a new agricultural machine raises many questions – its management, its adaptation to a specific environment, its profitability, its long-term efficiency…

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