University of Sydney
robotics professor Salah Sukkarieh, Ph.D., had two key messages for Fresh Connections: Australia-New Zealand
2014 attendees: the fresh produce industry can learn much from other industries that are already using robotics and intelligent systems (IS); and robotics and IS offer benefits well beyond mitigating labor cost and labor availability.
First, to define terms: “When we talk about ‘field robotics’… we are not talking about things that look like the Terminator walking through a field with a hoe, removing weeds,” Sukkarieh told delegates. Instead, today’s robots are existing machines that have had their cabins replaced with sensors and other elements to make the machines intelligent.
IS goes beyond robotics to look at “large-scale data analytics, data mining, optimization algorithms and machine learning, and how they all work together,” he explained. IS can ultimately move information up and down the supply chain.
“We aren’t saying we don’t want humans. We’re saying that today’s world is a lot more complex, there is lots more information… In some cases [analyzing all that] can only be done, or can be done better, by hardware,” said Sukkarieh.
Real-world examples reveal fresh produce opportunities
To expose fresh produce industry delegates to the potential offered by farm robotics and IS, Sukkarieh provided many examples from Australia and around the world:
• Automated shipping container straddle carriers, now in use at the Brisbane shipping port.
• Automated Rio Tinto
mining operations, including autonomous drilling rigs that can measure soil properties.
• Unmanned air vehicles used on large-scale Australian cattle farms, which use sensors to differentiate invasive tree species from native ones, to mark them for removal.
• An exoskeleton to aid Japan’s aging farmers.
• An automated slugbot that can detect, pick up and “devour” slugs.
• A hortibot from Denmark that automates mowing.
• A multiwheeled, crop-monitoring robot in Germany.
• Israeli date sprayers with sophisticated manipulator arms to precisely spray only the fruit.
• An autonomous strawberry harvester that should be commercially available soon.
He also cited “big data” projects launched recently by Monsanto
and its partners, and Bayer
with John Deere
. These projects are “looking at large collections of data, [at] how do I measure what’s going on in my soil, and based on that make decisions about what is the most appropriate seed to put in, and how many seeds to put in a given area,” Sukkarieh said. “The [field-level] resolution is currently at 25 by 25 centimeters, as time goes on that get even smaller.”
Benefits extend far beyond labor
While most people tend to think of robotics and IS as a means to reduce labor cost or to respond to labor unavailability, Sukkarieh stressed that the benefits extend well beyond labor – including improving land productivity.
To demonstrate, he presented data on labor and land productivity by country over the past 50 years. In Western countries for example, were productivity has flattened, robotics can help make advancements.
The benefits don’t stop at improving land productivity, either. “In addition, and sometimes of greater value,” he said, are benefits such as:
• Increased predictability: For example, the Brisbane port can predict “almost smack on” what the straddle carriers will have achieved six hours later, impossible to do with humans.
• Increased fuel and energy efficiency: Automating machines brings substantial fuel savings because “humans are hopeless at driving,” he quipped.
• Decreased environmental impact: The centre’s Ladybird automated sprayer can “completely slash” herbicide use by targeting weeds only for application.
• Better disease and pest identification, using robotic sensors and IS.
Sukkarieh urged the fresh produce industry to consider how to standardize its farm operations, such as the cereals industry has done, to facilitate the use of robotics and IS. He cited the example of apple industry research into two-dimensional tree trellis architecture in its orchards.
“If we can structure the farm a lot better, we can make automation easier,” he said.
He closed by returning to the value of bringing these systems together, to share information up and down the supply chain. “You might think these things are far away or aren’t relevant. Those are the same comments we’ve heard from every other industry – and every other industry has taken it on.”
Editor’s note: Videos of some of the machines described here can be viewed on the center’s YouTube channel.