Cropping robots move closer to reality

10 Feb, 2018 04:00 AM
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Farmers around the world are lining up to use the autonomous, mini driverless tractors.
Farmers around the world are lining up to use the autonomous, mini driverless tractors.

CENTRAL Queensland-based agricultural technology pioneer, SwarmFarm Robotics, is poised to start commercial production of its SwarmBot mini driverless tractors, with help from about $14 million of fresh investment capital.

The company, which operates from the Bate family’s Emerald district cattle and cropping property at Gindie, has just launched a capital raising effort through business advisory giant PwC Australia to help fund its commercial agenda.

Financial projections for SwarmFarm Robotics suggest initial positive earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) by 2020-21, growing to $50m by 2023.

Early versions of the lightweight, sensor-guided autonomous units – slightly larger in size than a farm quad bike – already operate in paddock teams on the family’s Central Highlands farm.

The research prototypes have been powered by 18 kilowatt diesel motors, working at about eight kilometres an hour, spot spraying weeds and mowing.

Hydraulic and electronic components can be easily swapped or replaced if required.

The first commercial-scale prototype is about to be built in Victoria with help from development partner and driverless car technology leader, Bosch.

Bosch is providing mechanical engineering expertise, system design knowledge and manufacturing and component supply for the SwarmBot platform.

The first of 50 commercial units are expected for release to farmers from mid-year on a managed lease basis for a monthly fee likely to be about $6000.

The SwarmFarm technology aims to lift farming system productivity by using the small, high-tech robotic gear in fleets, or swarms, for key broadacre and horticultural cropping system tasks, including planting, weed and pest control, fertiliser application and harvesting.

SwarmFarm director and co-founder, Jocie Bate, said the SwarmBot robots, mounted with eight-metre spray booms, had achieved a level of consistency and cost efficiency unattainable using traditional farming methods on the family’s farm.

“We believe this is the ideal platform to deliver the next wave of agricultural technology to farmers around the world,” Ms Bate said.

Her husband Andrew developed the original concept in 2010.

The project evolved from his partnership with robotics teams at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, New South Wales and the Farm Robotics Unit at Queensland University of Technology.

Mr Bate said once up and running commercially, SwarmFarm’s robotic technology would generate a regular investment return from the SwarmBot leases and sale of replacement parts, plus provision of ongoing software upgrade and related technology support to farmers over the life of each unit.

SwarmFarm business development director Neville Crook said farmers worldwide were lining up to use the technology.

“Innovative farmers have been watching SwarmFarm’s progress with keen interest ever since our concept bots were demonstrated in 2015,” Mr Crook said.

“They’re incredibly keen to access this technology.”

Bosch Australia president Gavin Smith said farmers were ready to enter the fourth revolution in agriculture, harnessing the power and potential of automation, sensing equipment, cloud computing and real-time data usage.

“We are delighted to be partnering with SwarmFarm to help bring about this transformation in Australian farming and the rest of the world,” Mr Smith said.

Also on board as a global business partner is crop protection chemical company, Adama, a division of global giant, ChemChina.

“Adama is thrilled to partner with SwarmFarm and to help take this young innovative Australian company to the world,” said strategy and resources senior vice president Dani Harari.

PwC Australia will act as SwarmFarm’s lead financial advisor for the capital raising and business growth phase for the next two years.

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