Robots and mangos: A new combination?
By Gabrielle Stannus
Matthew Fealy, Nuffield Scholar
Matthew Fealy manages Blue Sky Produce in Far North Queensland, growing mostly mangoes and avocadoes. Matthew successfully applied for a Nuffield Scholarship in 2017 to find mechanised solutions to reduce his orchard's heavy reliance on manual labour, which was becoming increasingly costly after changes to Working Holiday Visa taxation and the Horticulture Award casual pay rates. Matthew visited thirteen countries, interviewing some of the world’s most innovative farmers and prominent AgTech companies. Matthew’s final report, released in February, summarises those existing and near future technologies that he believes will make a difference to farming practices.
“I have focused particularly on orchard production systems and harvesting. I specifically maintained that focus because all too often AgTech talk tends towards the broadacre industries”, says Matthew. Matthew was especially keen to learn about that technology that is in use on-farm today. He refers to it as the “’incremental, less sexy technology’ necessary to drive development over the next decade 1 .
Matthew was particularly impressed by Precision Makers work in the Netherlands. This company developed the Greenbot, a fully autonomous, 110HP vehicle with the vision it would one day replace the common tractor. The Greenbot is a self-driving machine that can mow, sow, plough or fertilise twenty-four hours a day. Precision Makers retrofitted its in-cab control system and navigation map and 'smart box' to Verkooijen Fruits' Fendt 208V spray tractor. Now all spraying at that orchard is done at night and a twenty per cent reduction in chemical usage has been achieved. Robotic mowing is achieving a better cut at slower speeds whilst consuming less fuel than human operated mowing.
Central Queensland University’s Institute for Future Farming Systems
Matthew was also impressed with the Central Queensland University’s (CQU) Institute for Future Farming Systems (IFFS) machine vision technology as it can be retrofitted onto existing farm vehicles, reducing the cost to growers. “Let's put this on the autonomous tractor we saw earlier, and we are really starting to get some return on investment”, says Matthew.
Professor Kerry Walsh heads up the CQU IFFS Non-Invasive Sensor team responsible for the machine vision that excited Matthew. “We have designed a rig that can be mounted to a farm all-terrain vehicle (ATV), ute or even a sprayer, that images every tree in the orchard. We have a pipeline to process the images and upload them to a website, and count flowers or fruit on mango trees. The results are displayed as coloured dots across a farm map, and tallies down of fruit total per block. Mind you, we can only count what we can see, i.e. fruit hidden in the canopy is hidden. We also use a cheap time-of-flight camera to get distance from camera to fruit, and thus can work out fruit size. Now we can see the fruit, and how far away it is… the next step is to reach out and harvest it”, says Professor Walsh. His team are now working on a single actual arm approach on a traditional mango harvester to harvest fruit mechanically.
Professor Walsh claims that this technology may also be applied to stock inventory, marketing and crop protection, e.g. insect monitoring.
Professor Walsh believes members of the nursery and garden industry may be interested in SwarmFarm Robotics’ small autonomous, collision-avoiding robots. Founded by Andrew and Jocie Bate, SwarmFarm Robotics is based in Emerald in Central Queensland. Their ‘SwarmBots’ work in teams using infra-red beams for the precision application of herbicides and pesticides in fields. SwarmFarm Robotics claim that their ‘agbots’ are much lighter than conventional farm machinery and thereby help to avoid compaction. Given that, it is not surprising that their so-called ‘Mowbot’ is now apparently mowing turf on a turf farm. Three other SwarmBots are currently being built, one to mow and spray between rows on a macadamia farm, and the other two to detect and spot spray weeds on grain farms2. These robots could be fitted out to suit horticultural applications including spot spraying and precision application of fertiliser. SwarmFarm Robotics is currently touring its SwarmBot-5 prototype in regional Australia. Check out its Facebook page for further details.
Potential applications in the nursery and garden industry
Professor Walsh says that the nursery industry needs to ask what the value proposition is to them before taking up such technology. Some of the machines discussed here may be easily adapted to in-ground/field or container nurseries growing advanced trees, e.g. mowing and spot spraying between rows. However, it is highly recommended that growers research and even develop only those applications that will help them solve the biggest problem in their nursery and provide the biggest return on investment.
Fealy, M 2019, Robotics, Automation and Emerging Technologies for the Future of Australian Horticulture: An in-depth investigation of cutting edge existing, and near future technology and why growers need to rethink farming today, A report for Nuffield Australia Farming Scholars, Nuffield Australia Project No 1719.
Visit this page to download Matthew Fealy’s full report: https://nuffield.com.au/scholar-profile-matthew-fealy/
Professor Walsh's work was funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources under the Rural Research and Development (R&D) for Profit program (ST15005).
1. Fealy, M 2018, ‘AgTech in 2018: What's foam, what's fluff and what is functional....today.'’, viewed 20 March 2019, < https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/agtech-2018-whats-foam-fluff-what-functionaltoday-matthew-fealy/>
2. Sim, T 2019, 'Swarm Farm Robotics aims to break new AgTech ground + VIDEO', Beef Central, viewed 20 March 2019, < https://www.beefcentral.com/ag-tech/swarm-farm-robotics-aims-to-break-new-agtech-ground-video/>