New Elders partnership in robotics
In an exciting development that may change the shape of Australian agriculture, Elders has partnered with SwarmFarm Robotics to develop robotic technology for use in cropping.
Based at Gindie in the Central Highlands of Queensland, SwarmFarm Robotics is commercialising the use of robots to improve productivity, lower costs and reduce environmental impacts.
The company is the brainchild of innovative Queensland farmers, Andrew and Jocie Bate, who started looking for alternative technology as their farm equipment became bigger, wider, heavier and more costly.
“Minimum tillage and controlled traffic farming gave us productivity gains, but we had growing concerns about resistant weeds, soil erosion and the sheer size of our gear,” Mr Bate said.
“We needed to be more inventive and find smarter and smaller solutions, and with so much going on with robotics technology in mining and military applications, I wondered how it could be applied in agriculture.”
Fast forward five years and the SwarmFarm Robotics will host its commercial launch and demonstrate multi-robot weed spraying operations at their Gindie property, 50 kilometres from Emerald, this month.
In what’s likely to be world first, three robots including the latest Swarmbot 3 platform will be working simultaneously targeting weeds with herbicides in a fallow paddock before an estimated crowd of 200 people.
Graham Page, Elders National Technical Services Manager, said developments like this explained why Elders was delighted to form a partnership with SwarmFarm Robotics and its founders, Andrew and Jocie Bate.
“This technology may prove to be the next big thing for our cropping clients, so we want to be involved from an early stage,” he said.
“What also appeals to us at Elders is that Andrew and Jocie are farmers who understand the practicalities of farming, which gives us confidence that any new technology their company develops will be fit for purpose and tested under rigorous field and climatic conditions.”
Mr Page said robotics technology had the potential to enhance farm efficiency and take agriculture to the next level, following on from advances in precision agriculture, minimum tillage and controlled traffic farming.
“Farm management practices are coming under increasing pressure and compliance issues will become more pressing for farmers in the future,” he said.
“For Elders, the development of robotics has huge implications for agronomy so our partnership with SwarmFarm Robotics will enable us to take an early lead in understanding how this technology works and how we can help our clients apply it.”
Winding back the clock five years, Mr Bate said their journey into robotics began by recognising that the gains from minimum tillage and controlled traffic farming had plateaued and wondering how they would control weeds in 10 years’ time.
Andrew and Jocie Bate run a 4,000 hectare winter and summer cropping program and a beef cattle operation in partnership with his parents, Ross and Jenny Bates.
“People talked about driverless tractors, but we weren’t looking to automate agriculture,” Mr Bate said.
“Our vision was to develop a whole new way of growing crops with the use of robots and turn farming on its head.
“We came up with some ideas, stood outside our comfort zone and starting talking to people at CSIRO, universities, the military and mining companies.”
The couple formed a three-year partnership with the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics and Queensland University of Technology which had only just entered the robotics field.
“Typically, the universities develop technology and then look for companies to apply it, but in our case, we sought their help to take our ideas to the next stage,” Mr Bate said.
“By the end of the project, we had enough technology to go commercial, so we set up SwarmFarm Robotics and started employing our own people about 18 months ago.”
While the sceptics thought it would be tough to find qualified people who wanted to work in their rural start-up business, Andrew and Jocie Bate found the opposite.
“In fact, lots of people wanted to be involved because so few companies are doing real autonomous robotic technology and that’s what really drives these people,” Mr Bate said.
These days, SwarmFarm Robotics employs two mechatronics engineers, as well as interns and short-term contractors as required.
Neville Crook brings 30 years’ experience in agronomy, farming and farm consulting to his role in business development and Director of SwarmFarm Robotics.
Mr Bate is keenly aware that this journey is as much about agronomy as it is robotics, with implications for farm machinery, the business and all aspects of the farm enterprise.
“Imagine one or two robots or many more working together in a swarm in a paddock, killing weeds for example,” he said.
“Robots are designed as the tool carriers, but the most exciting aspect is the technology they carry on board.
“It’s the ability of robots to slow down or stop that opens up all sorts of opportunities, not just for applying a lethal dose of herbicide or target a specific weed, but for fertilising and harvesting crops, pruning and thinning, or other mechanical operations.
“Instead of one size fits all, the tool carrier concept enables us to tailor the technology to your climate, your crop and your soil, right down to individual leaves.”
It’s these possibilities which appealed to former Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, who has a background in agribusiness and engineering and now chairs SwarmFarm’s board.
“SwarmFarm has the potential to transform Australian agriculture by using swarms of small, lightweight, low cost machines that perform a variety of tasks, but we’re also determined to export this technology to the world,” he said.