Australia is an international leader in the area known as ‘field robotics’, which is the automation of outdoor machinery. I have had the unique opportunity of collaborating with many industry partners in mining, stevedoring, transportation, defence and environment management where we have automated machines and placed into operation. The key benefits have been improved operational and energy efficiencies, occupational health and safety (OH&S) and productivity. Agriculture robotics has had a significant following in the United States (US) and Europe both nations have outlined programs that involve industry, government and university coming together to address key productivity and biosecurity issues that could be addressed by robotics and intelligent systems. Two large programs that would be of interest to the apple and pear community are Comprehensive Automation for Speciality Crops (CASC) and Clever Robots for Crops (CROPS). Over the last eight years I have come in contact with many growers and industry representatives from the agriculture industry who have shown great interest in robotics. What has surprised me the most is the rapid adoption, or appreciation, of the potential for robotics to transform the agriculture industry. Some of the earlier work was around robotic aircraft used to detect invasive species such as weeds funded by Land and Water Australia and Meat and Livestock Australia. We are currently looking at using robotic aircraft to map vegetation on farms to support growers with timely information about the health of their crops. Over the last year and a half we (University of Sydney) have been collaborating with Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL) to see how autonomous systems (both machines and software) could be used in tree-crop farming operations. Our focus has been on the value-add elements to crop intelligence that is, if we had a robot that could operate in a tree-crop farm with the right type of sensors, what can we tell about the tree and fruit that would help growers in their operation. In this project we implement one of our electric ground vehicle robots that has been used in mining and defence applications. The robot can operate for up to four hours and has thermal, visual, and laser sensors that point towards the trees as the robot travels down the rows, as well as ground conductivity and ion sensors. Through this system we are collecting centimetre level data from different sensors of the tree and the ground below it that provides a picture of the farm. After applying various data fusion and machine learning algorithms we can do tasks such as individual fruit identification, crop yield, tree architecture modelling and identification of flowers. The field trials have occurred on apple and almond farms with an extension to tropical fruit later this year. The focus for now has been on crop intelligence because providing better information to the grower in a timely manner would support more informed decision-making. However the technology developed here also provides the foundation for future technologies in autonomous pruning, thinning and ultimately harvesting. It is these areas that will have the greatest transformational impact.
About the author:
Professor Salah Sukkarieh is an international expert in the research, development, operationalisation and commercialisation of field robotic systems. He has led a number of robotics and intelligent systems research and development (R&D) projects in logistics, commercial aviation, aerospace, education, environment monitoring, agriculture and mining. Click here to contact Professor Salah Sukkarieh.