A Brisbane robotics company has deployed robots and advanced picking and packing technology in commercial trials with avocados.
Robotics technology offers one solution to on-farm labour shortages caused by the impact of COVID-19 on the availability of foreign backpackers and seasonal labour movement across Australian borders.
A study by Ernst & Young for Horticulture Innovation Australia released in September reported the gap between demand and supply of casual labour will result in up to 26,000 positions going unfilled in horticulture during the next nine months.
Managing director and co-founder of Lyro Robotics, Dr Jurgen "Juxi" Leitner, robots can help solve the labour problem.
"The future of robotics is bright, specifically in agriculture where there are a lot of dirty, dull and dangerous jobs.
"Another big advantage of robots is that they can work day or night, don't need breaks, can work long hours and automate repetitive tasks," Dr Leitner said.
"Robotics enable people to be up-skilled in technology and at the same time they can carry out jobs that humans won't or are unable to perform."
The team from Lyro has visited Sunnyspot Packhouse at Ravensbourne near Toowoomba on two occasions during the past 5 months to deploy robots and picking and packing technology.
Dr Leitner said the robots combined computer vision with machine learning and robotic grasping which sees an avocado coming down the line, makes a decision on how to grasp the fruit correctly, picks it up and places it into the cardboard box.
Director of Sunnyspot Packhouse and Sunnyspot Farms Daryl Boardman, who established the business with wife Sally 21 years ago, said they haven't had major issues with labour hire in the last decade, however disruptions this year had changed that.
"We are pretty concerned for the next season as the COVID pandemic has affected the influx of additional labour from overseas, so more automation is needed in our business to adapt to these and any unforeseen staff changes," he said.
"Lyro's team members were keen to listen and adapt the software and robot parts to make them work in our shed. They will continually tweak the software and teach it what to do and we're happy to have them trial their systems again next year.
"While speed and accuracy of the human workforce is essential to our business, Lyro's robotics when working 24/7 can certainly complement our operations and keep up with our packing demands as the business evolves."
Dr Leitner said his team has spent a decade researching robotic vision, machine learning, and robotic grasping, so to witness the excitement of it working and being useful to businesses made it all worthwhile.
"Even though in this case we were packing avocados, the technology behind it is not limited to a specific produce or specific item - we can pack avocados today, mangoes tomorrow and pharmaceutical items next week.
"The Lyro machine Intelligence is a deep learning AI software system that integrates the brain, the eyes and the hands, enabling any robot to pick and pack any item, even if it has not seen it before.
"Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have experienced a steep increase in commercial interest for robotic solutions in food, e-commerce, warehouse and supply chain industries.
"Our innovative robots and software can work inline with existing factory operations and automated systems across agriculture, horticulture, retail, logistics, warehousing as well as waste management sectors for picking, packing, and sorting to be all done contact free.
"We are very excited to see a focus in the Federal Budget 2020-21 on manufacturing where advanced and intelligent robots are seeing an annual growth rate of 46 per cent.
"In fact our vision is to have 100,000 robots out there by 2030 performing dirty, dull and dangerous manual tasks," Dr Leitner said.
The Aussie start-up has come a long way in its first year after receiving their seed funding injection from Japan's Toyo Kanetsu Corporate Venture Fund II.