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Robots in the orchard

Rambling robots are being programmed to collect information about soils, trees, yields and ripeness in an almond orchard.

January 4, 2013 4:06am

Robots collecting yield and soil and tree health information in a Mildura almond farm.


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A team of Australian scientists has brought the future to a Victorian almond farm.

The University of Sydney team with the support of Horticulture Australia has successfully developed and trialled a system which includes robots that can move through the orchard, sense and collect information about soil and tree health, nut yields and ripeness.

The team hopes to extend the system to be able to harvest tree crops.

Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems Salah Sukkarieh, who is leading the project, is confident the technology trialled at Mildura, can be applied to other tree crops. In February, the team will trial the system in an apple orchard near Melbourne.

Dr Sukkarieh hopes the technology will be commercially available to farmers in a couple of years.

‘‘Traditionally it has been necessary for someone to actually walk through the orchard, taking and analysing soil and other samples and making decisions on the health and yield quality of the plants,’’ Dr Sukkarieh said.

‘‘The devices we’ve developed can collect, analyse and present this information autonomously, so a major part of the farmer’s job can be done automatically.’’

He said there was definitely a trend towards automation, for example with driver-assistance technology in broadacre cropping and robotic dairies.

The project’s second stage, which will start in the new year, involves applying this technology to standard farm tractors. As well as perceiving their environment and identifying operations required, the robotic systems will be able to perform many of the operations themselves, such as applying fertilisers and pesticides, watering, sweeping and mowing.

The third and most complex stage will be to enable the devices to carry out harvesting, which Dr Sukkarieh hopes will be achieved in a few years.

‘‘The devices we’ve developed already can identify each individual fruit on the tree and its degree of ripeness, which is about 80 per cent of the job done,’’ he said.

‘‘But being able to harvest them is our ultimate goal.’’

Dr Sukkarieh said automated technology was important to help overcome labour shortages and costs in agriculture, which could hold Australia back from being the food bowl of Asia.

‘‘This is where automation can help. We can use it to increase efficiency and yield, by having many of the manual tasks of farming performed by specially designed agricultural robotic devices.’’

He said there was more interest in automated agricultural technology and farmers were scoping out its potential.

Dr Sukkarieh said as technology developed and became cheaper, the uptake would increase.

‘‘It all comes down to cost. There are such small margins in farming and technology will be able to help,’’ he said.

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