Robots – the rise of the machines
Over the next 20 years the number of robots will surpass the number of personal computers and will soon be found in every room of the home. Agriculture will not be immune from this rush to automation.
Early adopters have embraced drones, precision tractors and robotic arms. Moving beyond these basic tools, agricultural automation and robotics have the potential to develop whole new farming and production systems. This tech delivers solutions to our labour shortage issues, and is a key part of maintaining Queensland as a world-leader in sustainable agriculture. It will also transform parts of our workforce and create opportunities for those with the skills to service this technology.
Robots are being used to pick apples, gather strawberries, harvest lettuce and strip away weeds. They are machines with motors and sensors. They perform operational tasks while intelligently responding to their environment. They can be built to perform an amazing array of physical farm tasks, and once automated can be as independent as a rolling cattle mustering droid or as inter-dependent as the smart operational components in a variable rate tractor.
Robots vs robotics vs automation
Automation is the use of computer software, machines or other technology to carry out a task that would otherwise be done by a human. Robotics is the field of engineering incorporating multiple disciplines to design, build, program and use robotic machines. Robots are self-contained electronic, electric, or mechanical devices programmed to perform discreet tasks, often automatically and intelligently.
Robots come in all shapes and sizes. They are built to task, bounded by the function they were built to deliver. Some move, some stay put. There are robots, often called droids, which fly, swim, roll and wander about on legs. There are swarming robots (lots of robots working together to complete a task), collaborative robots (work with you to help you complete a task), industrial robots (built into the production line) and even fully robotic dairies and container ports!
Is a drone a robot?
Simply piloting a drone around the sky does not make it a robot. However, give a drone the power to take off and land on its own, to sense and avoid objects and suddenly it’s a lot more of a robot. It’s the sensing and intelligence, the responsive action and autonomy that’s key to being a robot.
All robots share these traits:
- a frame, form or shape designed to achieve a particular task
- an electrical component to power and control the machine
- some level of code or software to tell the machine when or how to do something
Custom formed, powered and coded, agricultural robots will carry out production tasks reliably and autonomously until you say ‘stop’, or the power runs out.
Robots can do almost anything from simple monitoring to responding intelligently to a changing environment. As such, their platforms can vary in complexity.
- Level 1: Sensing: They can see and monitor their environment (e.g. a drone with a camera).
- Level 2: Understanding: They can see and apply knowledge to assess a situation (e.g. a packing shed conveyor device able to count passing fruit).
- Level 3: Performing: They can interpret what they see and make a prescribed action (e.g. a robotic harvesting arm which is able to identify and pick fruit).
- Level 4: Learning: They are able to interpret, learn and improve their accuracy (e.g. a robotic fruit harvesting arm that not only picks ripe fruit, but recognises and stores data on the unripe, scheduling them for a later visit).
Small robots doing big things
Not all robots are big in size. Nanoscale robots are molecular machines that can easily move around inside an animal’s body. They are bots that can sense, record and diagnose at the cellular level, able to identity animal health concerns, deliver micro-doses and some even perform micro-surgery!
Benefits for agribusiness
Robots can improve operational efficiencies and productivity, and carry out jobs that humans won’t or are unable to perform. Build the robot right and it will learn from its mistakes until the task is mastered.
Robots can offer the following benefits in the workplace:
- will work day or night, weekends and holidays, rain or shine
- don’t need breaks and can work long hours
- automate repetitive boring tasks
- improve WH&S by doing the work in the dangerous places
- improve quality through task standardisation
- remove production bottlenecks
- deliver traceable sustainability metrics through their precision
- can increase efficiency, reduce costs and increase profits.
Solving the labour shortage
For an industry frequently impacted by labour availability, robots may be a viable solution. Some people have expressed concerns that ‘robots will take our jobs’ but just like mechanical harvesters, they will create different employment opportunities in a modern workforce.
Challenges to adoption
We need to prepare ourselves for a future that has robots. Addressing the challenges upfront will allow us to plan investment, research, introduce policy and demonstrate return on investment.
Current barriers to growth include:
- number of local suppliers
- servicing and maintenance requirements
- investment capital
- power source requirements
- concerns for safety and ability to control robot
- specialist skills required to operate
- ongoing need for upgrades and servicing
- data management
Engaging robots as a service
Due to the high purchase and operational costs of automated solutions, many robot suppliers are providing their robots on a service model, charging farmers by the hour or area of crop serviced. Most are easy to schedule as they are very task specific, however there could be a shortage in supply for certain ots.
Queensland makes robots
Robots are building momentum in Queensland, kick-started with the rise in popularity of drones. With this simple introduction, demand for automation has grown exponentially and the industry is now ready to see what is on offer and the extent of robot capability.
Queensland University of Technology researchers at the Centre for Robotics and the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision are building our Queensland ag robot knowledge-base. They work with industry to develop custom automated solutions like Harvey (the capsicum picker) and generic robotic platforms like AgBot II (for crop and weed management). Other advances in robotics in Queensland include Central Queensland University's mango auto harvester, supported by Hort Innovation, and The Digital Homestead by James Cook University.
Commercially, Queensland is home to robot makers like Swarmfarm. Based in Emerald, with a growing team of service professionals, this company is Australia’s leading producer of agricultural robots for crop production and one of the few companies worldwide with robots commercially available, working on farms. Queensland is also home to LYRO Robotics, a keen team of roboticists developing boutique pick-and-pack robotic solutions for horticulture.
Regional sales offices for many global robot retailers are scattered across Queensland. Suppliers include Diversco who has supplied automated metal detectors for use in the local strawberry industry and Lely, that supplies automated solutions for the dairy industry.
The Port of Brisbane has built and pioneered Australia’s first fully autonomous port and on a smaller scale, the Scenic Rim Robotic Dairy in Tamrookum has discovered their self-milking cows not only save time, they attract tourists for a bit of added on-farm income.
This landscape map captures the automated robot solutions manufactured, invented or retailed in Queensland.
- Industrial automation
- Machine vision
- Soft robotics
- Human robot interaction
- Artificial intelligence
- Swarm robots
- Autonomous drones
The Queensland Government does not endorse or warrant the suitability of any AgTech product or service featured in the Exploring Frontiers series. Whether a particular product or service is suitable or fit for purpose will depend on your unique circumstances, for example, your location, the type and size of your farm and concerns. It is strongly recommended that you undertake your own inquiries as to the suitability of any AgTech products or services for your individual needs.
Last updated: 26 Sep 2022