In much the same way as the mining industry introduced driverless trucks to reduce high wage costs, Australia's tree-crop industry is experimenting with forms of field robotics that could drastically reduce their reliance on costly, seasonal labour.
Professor Salah Sukkarieh, head of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at The University of Sydney, was responsible for pioneering driverless trucks for Rio Tinto in the Pilbara and is now adapting his work for the horticultural industry.
"A lot of that research and knowledge gained helping Rio in the Pilbara is translating across into the agricultural robotics field," he says. "A classic example is drones, or robotic aircrafts. I've been working in that space for the last 20 years but it's only been over the past seven years that the cost of the technology has dropped and we can start to think about how we could use it in agriculture."
He is working with Horticulture Innovation Australia collating data to develop robotic solutions for avocado, mango and other tree-crop growers for weeding, pruning and, eventually, harvesting.
About 50 to 70 per cent of production costs in horticulture are spent on labour, and then mostly in tasks performed before harvesting, such as weeding, chemical costs and site inspections.
Professor Sukkarieh has multiple research projects on the go, all of which use air and ground robots fitted with sensors to harvest data, from which he and his team analyse and apply the data to instruct the robotic systems to do something in the field.
"We're trying to get away from where agriculture is now, which is without a lot of data on the farm, to using robots to acquire and analyse that data and also do something on the farm – automatic spraying, automatic weeding, automatic pruning and, eventually, automatic harvesting."
Horticulture Innovation Australia's Lloyd believes it is entirely possible that within 10 years the industry will have on-ground robots fitted with sensory technology able to identify, and pick, ripe tree crops such as mangoes.
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