Farm robots capable of checking plant health and weeding paddocks are about to be released into the field for the first time, following news Agerris will make its Digital Farmhand for horticulture commercially available come autumn.
A spin-off from the University of Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Agerris plans to market the 'farmbots' developed under the program, including the Digital Farmhand and the pastoral Swagbot, to farmers on a commercial basis.
Agerris CEO and University of Sydney robotics and intelligent systems Professor Salah Sukkarieh said the company received investment funding last April which allowed it to move the product forward, following 15 years of prototype development.
"Ten months in and the bots have been demonstrated on a few horticultural farms, with many hours in the field," he said.
"We have collected lots of data and are running machine learning to develop the crop intelligence."
Prof Sukkarieh said crop intelligence functionality allowed the Digital Farmhand to measure the individual growth rate of a plant, while weed identification tools on the platform also allowed the bots to carry out both mechanical and chemical weed control around the plants in horticultural situations.
"In autumn we will be starting services, going on farm and carrying out crop-intelligence weeding services," he said.
"The plan is that as time goes on the product will become a lot more robust and cost effective for the farmers.
"We are engaging with growers and are interested in finding more growers who may want to test the bots on their farms and move through to commercial engagement"
Prof Sukkarieh said the Swagbot, which is targeted at livestock grazing farms, was also well on its way to commercialisation.
"Swagbot has been continuing down its development phase and it has now completed a major endurance trial, being able to navigate down a livestock grazing farm and undulating terrain and do so autonomously," he said.
"It can track animals now, avoid animals autonomously and do automatic weed detection and spraying as well."
Prof Sukkarieh said Agerris would be on-site at the EvokeAg conference in Melbourne next week to showcase the technology.
"EvokeAg attracts a number of people from across the entire agricultural sector, so you get to meet new people from different areas in agriculture so you get a range of different input on your product," he said.
"I think that is valuable, being there and being part of the start-up scene and letting people know what we are doing, combined with the feedback is invaluable."
Prof Sukkarieh said farmers were enthusiastic about the product, and critical for the development of the farmbots.
"The growers we interact with give us constructive criticism while being positive about the technology, this helps us push forward," he said.
"They are critical in ensuring our systems provide a solution that works.
"Farmers can see the future in this type of technology and the relevance, both in terms of being able to save input costs, whether labour or chemical, and also increasing profitability through yield estimates and crop health monitoring."
Prof Sukkarieh said the company was also keeping an eye to the future, as demand for the farmbots increased.
"We have quite a capable team that can build robust platforms, but if you looked toward scaleability, producing more, the question of whether we want to do it internally and grow internally, or whether we want to partner with an agricultural machinery partner," he said.
"At this stage we are undecided, it will also come down to the scale of the robot and the capabilities of the robot, all the options are still on the table.
"We've got the funding we need, we are now focusing on finding growers who would be keen to have us on farm, not just as demonstration, but are keen to work with us on the product and move into a commercial arrangement, so that is what's next."