Robotics revolution rolling out across Australia

Agerris Digital Farmhand robots tackling horticulture industry's challenges

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Find out how robots like the Digital Farmhand are chipping weeds and solving labour challenges for growers.

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Controlling weeds and labour challenges are two of the big issues horticulture growers face.

But growers may soon have another tool in their arsenal as robots begin rolling into paddocks across Australia.

In Queensland's south east corner, four robots can be seen mapping the fertile soils of farms in the Lockyer Valley and Scenic Rim.

They are part of Agerris' growing Digital Farmhand fleet, with eight robots working on farms in Victoria and one in NSW.

Agerris robotics technician and operator Andrew Whiteside said the Digital Farmhand is designed to be adaptable and can be configured for row spacings between 1.5 and 3 metres.

Agerris mechatronics engineer David Htet, Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner, Kalfresh CEO Richard Gorman and Agerris robotics technician and operator Andrew Whiteside alongside two Agerris Digital Farmhands. Pictures: Melody Labinsky

Agerris mechatronics engineer David Htet, Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner, Kalfresh CEO Richard Gorman and Agerris robotics technician and operator Andrew Whiteside alongside two Agerris Digital Farmhands. Pictures: Melody Labinsky

It is run by two, 24-volt electric motors and has a chain drive to reduce machine down-time.

"Everything is electronic so there is no changing oil or any of that other stuff you also have to do with your tractors," Mr Whiteside said.

"Maintenance can be done in an hour a month as opposed to the five or six hours of down-time it can be for a major service on a tractor."

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Two cameras feed information to a crop dashboard, with Agerris using machine learning to help the robot identify and distinguish crops from weeds.

The robot communicates with a tablet via wifi and the remote control runs on the Allora network, making it capable of remote access.

Two implements are commercially available; an intelligent chipper capable of intra and inter row weeding and a smart hitch, which is able to detect and maintain row depth as well as run finger weeders and tynes.

Kalfresh CEO Richard Gorman finds out how the Agerris Digital Farmhand is controlled by Agerris robotics technician and operator Andrew Whiteside.

Kalfresh CEO Richard Gorman finds out how the Agerris Digital Farmhand is controlled by Agerris robotics technician and operator Andrew Whiteside.

When Kalfresh CEO Richard Gorman heard Agerris was conducting trials at the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries' Gatton Research Facility, he jumped at the opportunity to use the Digital Farmhand.

Kalfresh operates properties at Stanthorpe, Kalbar and Gatton in Queensland's south east corner and Bowen in the north, to provide products year-round to customers.

The business runs carrot, green bean, sweet corn and pumpkin programs across its 1619 hectares.

Close to seven years ago, Kalfresh started going down the path of organics and now grows green beans, sweet corn, pumpkin, snacking capsicums, snacking tomatoes and mini melons on 202ha of certified organic country.

The Digital Farmhand is run by two, 24-volt electric motors and has a chain drive to reduce machine down-time.

The Digital Farmhand is run by two, 24-volt electric motors and has a chain drive to reduce machine down-time.

Mr Gorman said weed control was the hardest part of organic farming and hopes the Digital Farmhand will be a game-changer.

He said there was a lot of competition and machines in the robotics space around the world but they had opted to use an Australian product.

The local support was another positive factor and he said they were eager to collaborate with Agerris and DAF.

"They are over there now training on bare ground where we will plant later this month," Mr Gorman said.

"As soon as we've got crop through it will start doing the monitoring and then we'll move onto the weeding.

"We're hoping this summer season we're going to make some very large strides."

Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the state government recognises that agtech is the future of farming and agriculture.

Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the state government recognises that agtech is the future of farming and agriculture.

Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the sky is the limit when it comes to technology like this.

"Given the current circumstances with drought, with COVID-19, the shortage of ag workers in the country, this is instrumental," he said.

"It will be a game-changer for agriculture and that's why the collaboration with Kalfresh is so important."

Mr Gorman said the main driver behind the switch to organic was the opportunity to get into a space where products attract a higher value.

"Since we've been involved in it we've learnt a lot about farming and the way our natural systems work," he said.

"So we've transferred a lot of that knowledge over into our conventional growing anyway, which has led us on a path of less water use, less chemical use, less fertiliser use, higher carbon retention and using plants to restore our soil with cover cropping.

"For a bloke who's been in farming for 30 years, it kind of rekindles your excitement in agriculture, so that's been a really good path for us."

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The story Robotics revolution rolling out across Australia first appeared on Farm Online.

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