'Swarms' are coming to a farm near you

'Swarms' are coming to a farm near you


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Swarm Farm field engineer Tom Holcombe (left) with founder and chief executive officer Andrew Bate, Emerald, Queensland, standing beside their display at the Southern Dirt TECHSPO 2019 at Katanning last week. The autonomous Swarm Farm machine was pulling a Marshall Spreader but it could also pull other systems such as sprayers, depending on the need.

Swarm Farm field engineer Tom Holcombe (left) with founder and chief executive officer Andrew Bate, Emerald, Queensland, standing beside their display at the Southern Dirt TECHSPO 2019 at Katanning last week. The autonomous Swarm Farm machine was pulling a Marshall Spreader but it could also pull other systems such as sprayers, depending on the need.

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There's a whole new paradigm awaiting farmers of the future.

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THERE'S a whole new paradigm awaiting farmers of the future.

And that's so-called swarm robotics - small machines that can spray, spread and seed and potentially harvest with a determined number simultaneously working in one paddock.

At last week's Southern Dirt TECHSPO at Wagin and Katanning, central Queensland farmer Andrew Bate, who crops more than 4400 hectares of mainly chickpeas and wheat, said he was making it happen now, having formed a company called SmartFarm Robotics, based at Emerald.

Over the past three years, he has overseen 5800 hours of paddock testing with prototype autonomous boomsprayers and is now selling commercial robots as prime movers to tow his company's sprayers, initially aimed at the spot-spray market.

But a collaboration with Croplands could see further expansion into conventional spraying.

"At the moment it's a slowly, slowly approach and we're looking for WA farmers who are keen to be early adopters of this technology," Mr Bates said.

"We're using Croplands WEEDit technology on the sprayers and that is working really well.

"Half the robots we sell are going out with the WEEDit technology.

"It's the same dual line system they have on their range of boomsprayers, so you have the ability to spot spray and blanket spray, according to weed conditions."

The sprayers can carry six or 12 metre width booms and will come with 1000 litre tanks for broadacre requirements, but Mr Bates said the company was working on a gooseneck model with a 3000L tank.

Power is from a Hatz water-cooled, turbo-charged four cylinder diesel engine that delivers a power rating of 56 kilowatts (75 horsepower) with a working speed of 10 kilometres an hour.

"We think the power we have is the 'sweet spot' for these machines so you can achieve 12 hectares an hour with a 12m boom," Mr Bates said.

While it is a blue sky industry, Mr Bates said at this stage his focus would remain on sprayers and assessing available technology that could create solutions to "fit the farm".

"What we're doing is the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"Robots need to be lightweight and flexible so we can add other technologies as they emerge."

The obvious advantages of using robots included a diminished labour requirement and longer hours in the paddock, creating time efficiencies.

Mr Bates said his company also was assessing other weed systems including the WA-designed Weed Chipper and microwave technology and incorporating weather stations on the robots for 24/7 data-gathering and monitoring wind changes to guard against drift into neighbouring paddocks.

Another research project is creating software for robots to count flowers on apple trees to control flower populations to better manage quality fruit production.

"The main areas we're looking at are those that are more efficient at reducing costs," he said.

Mr Bates is a former agronomist who has been farming for 18 years.

"I think we're getting to a stage where big isn't necessarily the best at creating efficiencies," he said.

"That's why I thought there had to be a better way, given the shortage of labour and the fact that machines were becoming bigger and heavier," he said.

"I think smaller is better because you can test new technology faster with a robot.

"Agriculture needs another revolution to lift our productivity if we are to be suppliers of food to a growing world population.

"We're creating a new wave of technology that comes from the soil up and that's how we address our products.

"You still need to look at the soil, the insects, etc and manage the soil rather than just sitting in a tractor (or watching a robot at work in your farm office).

Mr Bates has 16 full-time staff at SmarmFarm Robotics, including software engineers and agronomists.

If you are interested in becoming an early adopter, you can contact Mr Bates on 0428 186 371.

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