The head of agtech at Australia's largest horticultural company has shared his thoughts on some of the limitations holding up adoption of these innovative products.
Costa Group agtech and innovation commercial manager Jesse Reader said horticulture was craving solutions to its labour-related challenges.
"We're always really focused on those headwinds and managing the cost of production and a lot of that is going to be linked to technology solutions for us," he said.
"That ability to find and stimulate and retain skilled workers is not insignificant.
"If you want to be a preferred employer of choice, you need to create some point of difference in your offering."
Mr Reader has been closely watching the development of autonomous tractors, autonomous tractor kits and special purpose machinery.
He divulged some of the products he is keeping an eye on at the Tractor and Machinery Association of Australia conference in Melbourne last week.
On the autonomous tractor front, he said AgXeed was going really well and offered an interesting platform of OEM quality.
He's closely watching Monarch's electric tractor, which was well designed and balanced in terms of its battery placement.
Autonomous tractor kits also really piqued Mr Reader's interest about two years ago.
"I think we've got a lot of underutilised assets on farm that don't do as much as they should do," he said.
"Tractor drivers would be the first 19 positions I'm trying to fill at the moment, followed by everything else on my list in the business.
"It's very hard to find good, reliable people to do things you need to do and it's often tractor driving."
But it is special purpose machinery where he has spent most of his time looking at what's on offer.
GUSS' autonomous sprayer and Ripe Robotics' fruit pickers are of interest, as well as the Revo Puma fruit harvester.
Mr Reader recently trialled the Revo Puma in a citrus orchard with a team of eight new pickers.
He said these people had never picked before and traditionally it would have taken them about 45 minutes to pick a bin. They picked their first bin using the machine in 14 minutes.
"I just sat there and crunched the numbers; on one of our farms it would be a couple of million dollars of savings coming at us and an eight month return on our capital," he said.
So what's the hold up? Some of the barriers include difficulties getting finance for special purpose machinery and not being able to register the gear.
The technology is also 'really expensive' as companies are still manufacturing in low volumes.
Mr Reader said autonomy still requires supervision and this should not be underestimated.
Another barrier is that the technology is not fit for purpose.
"Often companies haven't considered the user experience of the piece of technology and how we're going to apply it," Mr Reader said.
"A lot of things only do niche jobs and they sound really good and they sound really interesting but they just aren't particularly impactful.
"They might own a space and they might do it really well but ... they just aren't hitting the mark."
I just sat there and crunched the numbers; on one of our farms it would be a couple of million dollars of savings coming at us and an eight month return on our capital.- Jesse Reader
Mr Reader said horticulture, and agriculture, needs to meet technology half-way.
He said businesses were continuing to expect technology to solve their problems but refused in most cases to change the systems in which they grow.
"Say we grow a tree that looks like Nan's old Granny Smith tree at home; we expect a machine to be able to come in, find all the fruit, of which you and I can't see half of it with our own eyes when we look at it, go through and come up, under, over, back through grab an apple and bring it back through," he said.
"All this discretion is required by a robot and we're saying, 'robotics is just not there yet, is it ever going to come, they're killing us, there's no solutions'.
"Let's just pump the brakes for a sec. Have we ever considered maybe if we present our fruit in a different way, maybe if we grow in a different way, maybe if we create an environment in which technology could be accelerated in terms of getting a product to maturity and adoption, we might find ourselves a lot closer?
"That's a huge focus for me in my role in our business, is how do I bridge the gap quicker and how do I get us into a position where we can harvest more of our crops in an augmented or machine-assisted way."
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