Robot ‘farmers’ in Australia help boost output and curb waste

In the state of Queensland, a farming family’s business recently raised A$12 million for their SwarmFarm technology. PHOTO: SWARMFARM ROBOTICS

SYDNEY - Farmers in Australia are turning to robots to help them pick, sow and irrigate crops in a major shift that is helping to address workforce shortages and improve environmental outcomes.

The use of robots has proven particularly valuable for picking fruit and vegetables in recent years as farmers struggled to find enough pickers.

At a berry farm in the island state of Tasmania, growers have been using robots to pick strawberries and blueberries. The robot rolls on tracks between the rows of berries, and has cameras that allow it to take photographs and determine if the berry is ready to be picked.

Farmers believe such robots can be more effective at identifying and picking ripe fruit without causing bruising or damage, can potentially work faster than human pickers, and may be able to operate 24 hours a day.

Ms Eva Thilderkvist, who has been managing the berry-picking robots at Burlington Berries farm in Tasmania, said the robots could give farmers “peace of mind” in cases where they cannot find enough workers.

“They’re not a replacement for your workforce, it’s more of a supplement for your capacity on your farm,” she told ABC News in February. “Obviously robots don’t get Covid-19, they don’t roll an ankle, they’re pretty reliable workers.”

Australia is a major agricultural nation, producing about A$85 billion (S$77.4 billion) worth of farming products in 2022.

The country produces far more than it can consume, with more than 70 per cent of total produce sold overseas. Major exports include wheat, cattle, sheep, dairy, wine, wool, sugar and fruit.

The largest buyer is China, followed by a group of countries that includes Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, the United States, South Korea and Vietnam. The sector employs about 318,000 Australian residents.

Farmers in Australia often rely on an additional wave of about 35,000 temporary migrant workers to assist with picking, but the usual influx came to a sudden halt due to Covid-19-related travel restrictions.

Borders are now open again, but farmers are still struggling to find enough workers due to global labour shortages and Australia’s current low levels of unemployment.

Experts believe that robots will be able to address labour concerns and increase Australia’s agricultural output, while saving costs and ensuring that water and chemicals are used more efficiently.

Dr Sue Keay, an expert on robotics and chairman of Robotics Australia Group, a non-government advocacy organisation for robotics, told a farming conference in 2022 that she believes robots will “replace tasks, not jobs”.

“Automation will mean people can take on value-adding opportunities in their businesses and is a necessity in Australia where there is a shortage of labour,” she said.

The federal and state governments have been encouraging the use of new technology in the agriculture sector, including providing grants to develop robots that can remove weeds and improve the quality of manure.

In addition, private investors have funded the development of technology that can detect the ripeness of crops, and this allows livestock such as sheep and cattle to be monitored remotely.

Universities have also been backing agriculture research, including a project at a 1,600ha property owned by Charles Sturt University to develop Australia’s first fully automated farm.

In the state of Queensland, a farming family’s business recently raised A$12 million for SwarmFarm technology, which involves using “swarms” of robots to sow seeds, weed, apply fertiliser and harvest crops.

The robots can help to reduce the use of pesticides and fertiliser by applying the exact amounts needed, reducing costs as well as improving the farm’s environmental footprint.

The firm, SwarmFarm Robotics, reportedly has 45 robots in operation on Australian farms and has reduced pesticide usage by about 780 tonnes.

Mr Andrew Bate, the firm’s co-founder, told The Australian newspaper in February: “(Farmers) want a technology ecosystem... that leaves the lowest possible footprint on their fields, helping them do more with less.

“There’s a genuine revolution and that’s really happening now, and the vision in agriculture is to fundamentally change farming methods and the way farmers produce food.”

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