Robots on farms? Tell him he’s dreaming!
That was the reaction from a group of Aussie farmers about 10 years ago when Professor Salah Sukkarieh told them he was working on new technology that would one day transform the agricultural sector.
But Professor Sukkarieh’s vision will soon become reality following successful trials of two ground-breaking new robotics farming systems.
Speaking at the recent AWS Summit Innovation Day in Sydney, Professor Sukkarieh gave visitors a sneak peek into the farms of the future – where drones, robotic devices and intelligent systems will be commonplace.
For the past decade, Professor Sukkarieh and his team have been developing world leading autonomous robotic solutions aimed at improving agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. They have developed several prototypes, which are now ready to commercialise.
“With our new technology mums and dads on farms around the world will have their own robots,” he told Inside Robotics.
And those robots are expected to start rolling out within a year, he says.
Farmers and growers will be equipped with cutting-edge air and ground field robotic systems, intelligent tools and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, to help boost farm productivity.
Professor Sukkarieh is the Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney. He is also the former Director Research and Innovation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics – a position he held for more than 10 years up until last year.
During that time, he led the strategic research and industry engagement program with a team of about 120 people in the world's largest field robotics institute.
"My work involves developing robotic devices and intelligent systems that can operate 24/7 in outdoor environments,” he says. “These are devices that can perceive and understand their environment, make informed decisions about any actions required and then carry out those actions – all without direct human input.”
Bringing the new technology to market
Earlier this year, Professor Sukkarieh was nominated as the NSW Australian of the Year for his outstanding work in this field. And in 2017 he was awarded the CSIRO Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science – one of Australia’s most prestigious science awards.
More recently, Professor Sukkarieh was appointed CEO of Agerris, a new Agtech startup company formed to bring the new technology to market across the globe.
Last month, Agerris landed a $6.5 million investment to further develop and promote the new systems.
The funding will be used to formally launch the start-up and roll out its platforms and data analytics tools both in Australia and internationally.
“That funding will enable us to expand our team to 13 or 14 full-time people at the university and work with growers on the farm,” Professor Sukkarieh said.
“There is only so far a university laboratory can take technology of this kind – and we pushed the limit.
“Agerris now takes our knowledge and brings it into a company setting.”
Helping livestock farmers with high tech solutions
Livestock farmers face a number of competing and complex issues, such as high labour and fuel costs, as well as animal welfare and mismanagement concerns.
“Our platforms help to mitigate these challenges and help increase productivity by giving farmers smart precision farming approaches, made possible through our advances in sensor technology and farming automation,” Professor Sukkarieh explains.
“At the same time, our technology also enhances animal welfare and environmental sustainability.”
An electric ground vehicle that can be used for a broad range of agricultural activities, Swagbot, will be one of two technologies underpinning the project’s commercialisation.
Operating autonomously, Swagbot is able to identify and manage weed levels, monitor pasture quality and herd livestock. The platform will soon be able to monitor the welfare of grazing animals, and can be purpose-fit to deal with large scale row and tree cropping applications.
Swagbot, nearly four years in the making, has been built to deal with the most demanding weather conditions and terrains.
“It had to be an articulated platform that could move nimbly around – especially around animals,” says Professor Sukkarieh.
“So, we had to build a four-wheel drive bot with an articulated mechanism through it that could clamber over things like rocks and logs and also avoid animals.”
A second durable, low-cost autonomous robotics platform that automates on-farm tasks, Digital Farmhand, will also be developed by Agerris. The platform has been designed to assist smallholder row and tree crop farmers to better manage yields and crop health, including farmers in developing nations.
Pursuing global market opportunities
Agerris is trialling and developing the two systems in Australia before pursuing global market opportunities, such as in South East Asia and South Pacific nations. It is working towards developing a commercial offering for the Australian market before the end of the year.
With assistance from DEFAT Professor Sukkarieh and his team has already taken their ag bots to Indonesia, Tonga and Samoa.
“Those nations have similar problems to advanced nations – high labour costs, difficulty in finding experienced farm workers and pressure to produce high quality crops,” Professor Sukkarieh explains.
“They want technology that can help solve those problems.”
The key is to make the technology affordable for both emerging and developed markets, he says.
“Asia will be a huge market if we can keep costs low. The US and South America are also potentially big markets for this technology.”
Educating the next generation
A key part of the Australian program has been educating the next generation about the benefits of technology in agriculture.
For the past year, Professor Sukkarieh and his team have been introducing their ag bots to students in rural schools across NSW.
“We built software systems that make it really easy for kids,” he says. “Within three hours they have learned to code the robots to perform simple tasks.”
With government funding they have been able to expand the school program, leaving robots at selected schools for a full-term.
“The students have really embraced the robots,” Professor Sukkarieh says. “When we log on to the server we can see that some students are interacting with the robot throughout the whole day.”
Promoting STEM skills
With additional funding the trial will soon be expanded to 10 more schools in regional areas in NSW.
One of the main benefits of the trial has been the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) to high school students – especially girls.
“The schools are given a ‘real’ farm robot for a whole term so they learn about coding – and surprisingly it is the girls who have shown great interest. They take on coding and can piece it together really quickly.”
New era for farmers
Professor Sukkarieh is confident traditional farmers and growers will also find the bots easy to code and operate – especially when they see the benefits that can flow.
“This technology will allow farmers to gather vital data 24/7,” he says. “At the moment they can’t get that.”
Using machine learning techniques farmers can collect information from ground robots and drones for analysis.
This may include collection of data from animals on how and where they are moving day to day or whether they have any health problems.
Robots will also assist farmers with labour saving activities such as weed spraying, sampling and harvesting.
Can you see a day when robots will replace farmers?
“It has never been our motivation to replace them,” says Professor Sukkarieh.
“The whole motivation was to help people who are passionate about the land and passionate about growing food.
“This is an aid for farmers – that’s how we have always seen it.”
Professor Salah Sukarrieh … ground-breaking technology