Just five years ago Central Queensland grain farmer Andrew Bate was in a tractor, spraying a wheat crop, and thinking about ways to farm better and more efficiently. His idea to create a ‘swarm’ of small, lightweight machines that could work autonomously and cooperatively, is now a commercial reality.
SwarmFarm operations manager and leader of field development, Will McCarthy, says the robots are the ultimate weed scouts, tracking down escapes and eliminating them before they have a chance to set seed.
Along with his wife Jocie, Andrew is founding director of SwarmFarm Robotics. The headquarters of their agricultural technology company is their farm ‘Bendee’ at Gindie, south of Emerald, where their team of seven software and mechatronics engineers and technicians is building and testing world-first robotic technology specifically for agricultural applications.
“There are currently seven SwarmFarm robots working on grain farms, turf farms and in an environmentally-sensitive area on a mine site,” says Andrew. “Our commercial release of 50 robots setup for spraying weeds using the WeedIT optical sprayer technology is now underway.”
Weed control provides an excellent opportunity for robotics to shine. A time-consuming but ‘simple’ task that robots can do very effectively at a slower pace, ensuring every weed in the paddock is accurately and effectively controlled while still at a small size.
The cost benefit of robots applying herbicide lies in the frequency of treatment, accuracy and ability to safely operate any time of the day or night. While a grower may hesitate to go spraying, concerned that there might be another rain event and subsequent germination, the robots can ‘go now and go later’, always targeting small weeds at their most susceptible growth stage.
The SwarmFarm robots optimise the use of existing optical sprayer technology to identify and target small weeds in a green-on-brown situation (i.e. in fallow) by enabling more frequent applications that are slower and more accurate. The ability to go over the same paddock every few weeks is the standout difference that robotics can bring to the management of herbicide resistance.
SwarmFarm operations manager and leader of field development, Will McCarthy, says the prescription spraying used on ‘Bendee’ involves the robots passing over the fallow paddocks once every two weeks. “This way, no weed will get bigger than the 50 cent piece size that is optimal for effective control,” he says. “We can apply a wider range of herbicide modes of action, more robust rates for chemicals registered for this use pattern and potentially reintroduce products and brews that may have had reduced efficacy as broadacre sprays in the past.”
“The robots are the ultimate weed scouts, tracking down escapes and eliminating them before they have a chance to set seed. Constantly targeting small weeds and preventing seed set is the only way to keep weed numbers low and avoid herbicide resistance.”
The SwarmFarm robots enable the optical sprayer technology to really come into its own because the robots can operate slower, the cameras and sprayers can be closer together and the robots can go over the paddock repeatedly so there is no concern about getting the timing right. Every weed can be treated at an early growth stage for the herbicide to have maximum effect, tackling herbicide resistance at the source by applying constant downward pressure on the weed seed bank.
The SwarmFarm concept is ideal for new technology developments, as it allows easy integration of third party products as they are being developed, such as green-on-green technology. Will says the robots would then be able to distinguish between a weed and a crop plant and even between weed species. This will allow the removal of volunteer crop plants and even target broadleaf weeds like sowthistle in a broadleaf crop such as chickpea.
Although the current focus is on herbicide application, there is great potential to use the same platform to implement non-herbicide tactics such as targeted tillage or robotic chipping, steam or any other non-herbicide tactic found to be effective.
“Using the robot concept, microwave technology becomes a realistic option because the robots can stop at every weed and apply the necessary microwave blast to kill each weed, something that is simply not feasible for a tractor operator,” says Will.
“Aside from weed management, the robots will enable direct management of a crop’s plant population to maximise yield potential for the available soil moisture,” he says. “There is no reason why the S...
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