THE rise of the automated machines was one of the highlights at The University of WA’s (UWA) recent industry forum, with the Kondinin Group’s Ben White and Josh Giumelli sharing their experiences of automated technologies.
Every two years the pair, who has worked together for 20 years, travel to Germany where they attend Agritechnica with 500,000 others.
More than 2800 exhibitors from around the world demonstrate their machinery, equipment and technology under 40 hectares of roof.
Mr White said it took a while to get around the software and sensor technology on display.
“We are certainly seeing a real drive towards the software pathway in agriculture,” Mr White said.
“What is interesting is the past couple of times we have been to Agritechnica, there has been a real thrust towards autonomous machinery and equipment, not only prototypes but all the technology that sits behind that.”
Mr Giumelli said it was their job to get the information from the event and pass that onto WA farmers.
“We need to tell them about some of the technology that might be changing their lives in the future,” Mr Giumelli said.
“There have been a lot of changes in agriculture.
“We all hopped off the horse and jumped on the tractor at some stage.
“We have gone to mechanical harvesting and recently we have started using GPS guidance systems.
“We are more than certainly on the cusp of a significant revolution of automation on farms.”
The men first saw a machine operate autonomously in a broadacre cropping situation four years ago.
“There has always been the issue if a tractor just drove off through the fence and into the house,” Mr White said.
“There are some questions about social licence and safety.
“If we want to use this technology we might have to answer for it.”
Mr White said the Kondinin Group wanted to give farmers a snapshot of where automation was in agriculture, some of the machinery in the works and some of the things that were out there already.
Below are a list of technologies the pair has seen in action and what they see for the future.
Stablemates New Holland and Case IH released an autonomous concept vehicle a few years ago.
The New Holland NH Drive and the CaseIH AV were some of the first released concept vehicles, although there is a big difference between the two – the New Holland tractor still has a cab for an operator.
“The New Holland is probably for your more nervous adopter of this technology who still wants to be able to hop in and drive,” Mr Giumelli said.
“The CaseIH tractor is for people who want to go gung-ho and not have anyone ever sit on the tractor again.”
Mr Giumelli said the autonomous car industry had pioneered a lot of the technology that agriculture was using.
“It has also made a lot of the components pretty cheap and readily available,” he said.
Soil compaction is a big issue on Australian farms and as machinery gets bigger so does the compaction.
SwarmFarm Robotics has created the well know SWARMS, which are a diesel hydraulically-driven bot.
Including the pay load, no one machine weighs more than two tonnes.
“They are designed to work in teams out in the paddock,” Mr Giumelli said.
“Why they might be small capacity singularly, with a few of them working together they can get a fair bit done.”
The Australian Centre for Field Robotics has also come up with a similar idea with an autonomous tool carrying platform.
The centre is using a drone which flies around and spots for weeds.
Once a weed is detected it sends a signal back to the machine on the ground which drives around autonomously and sprays the spotted weeds.
The Fendt MARS robot is the size of “an esky on wheels,” Mr White said.
The MARS system is a number of bots that come out of the back of a van where they are charged up.
“You fill them with seed and out they go sowing a single row of seed at a time,” he said.
“I don’t think you would have any soil compaction issues there.”
Mr White said the MARS system was a prototype but he was sure it would be used more widely in the future, especially in horticulture.
Smart spraying concept
Bosch and Bayer created smart spraying system last year with green-on-green weed recognition, with some pretty powerful robotics and some computing power working to identify weeds from crops.
It will look at a seedling, figure out what it is and then select one of four products it could spray it.
It will direct inject the chemical into water then spray it out on the weed.
Mr Giumelli expects to see this type of smart spraying on SWARM bots pretty soon.
Jäti laser weeder
The Jäti laser weeder is an alternate technology for killing weeds.
The autonomous machine has a four-watt laser that drives along on tracks and zaps the weeds at the seedling stage, although the laser would need more power for bigger weeds.
Mr Giumelli doesn’t know if it will see on a broadacre scale any time in the near future.
The hands-free hectare
Mr White said the hands-free hectare was a very interesting project which was completed last year.
The project involved a hectare of land which was sown to barley where no human stepped inside the fenced area.
“What’s interesting about this project is it didn’t use high end technology,” Mr White said.
“They used all off-the-shelf technology and freely available software to drive the machinery.
“It was low cost autonomy and it was applied across every operation in that paddock.”