SYDNEY – Australia is 20 times the size of Japan, but has only a fifth of its population. To use this vast territory for large-scale agriculture and mining, the support of robotics will be increasingly important. That is why, in 1997, the University of Sydney established the Australian Center for Field Robotics, which is home to 120 researchers engaged in fields such as computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, and mathematics. Few institutions match the scale of the center’s field robotics operations, the study of robotics for outdoor use.
The biggest problem the center is tackling right now is the use of automation to reduce labor costs. “Australia is a big country, we export about 70% of agriculture, labor costs are very high and availability is short, so we have to focus a lot on automation,” said Professor Salah Sukkarieh, director of research and innovation at the center. . According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Australia’s minimum wage is third in the world after Luxembourg and France, and 50% higher than the US minimum wage. The intense heat spreading over large swathes of dry land also leads to labor shortages due to the harsh working conditions.
In Sukkarieh’s vision for the future of agriculture, farmers no longer work in the fields but give commands to their robots from their living room. A step in this direction is the center’s orchard robot, which is currently in development.
The robot uses GPS and sensors to navigate an orchard and takes a photo of each fruit without human assistance. Information on flowering conditions can eventually help the farmer to predict the harvest and target fruits that need more water or fertilizer, thus contributing to a larger harvest. The robot is able to identify fruits like mangoes and avocados, but is not yet able to determine which crops are ready to be picked.
How to harvest the crops next is also an issue that needs to be addressed, but Sukkarieh is optimistic. “Big producers across the country are expected to have their own bot, maybe 50… and probably in 2-3 years,” he said.
A technology license and commercial application are forthcoming for another robot, dubbed the “Ladybug,” which was commissioned by a farming group. The unmanned robot roams farmland on four wheels while its built-in sensors differentiate weeds from crops, spraying either fertilizer or weedkiller. The machine only uses the minimum amount required, resulting in cost savings. And in fine weather, the Ladybug is powered by its solar panels. The robots will be priced so that farmers can recoup the cost in about two years.
The use of robots is a few steps ahead in the mining industry, where progress is being made in remote management. The Rio Tinto Center for Mine Automation, a collaboration between the Center for Field Robotics and global mining company Rio Tinto, has been active in automating its trucks and railroads for its unmanned mining operation.
According to Sukkarieh, Rio Tinto paid around A $ 42 million ($ 31.7 million) to the center. “Our main roles have been to develop new theories and algorithms that would enable greater efficiency of mining operations through automation,” he said.
Ninety-five percent of the robotics centre’s operating funds thus come from industry. The center has collaborated with 60 companies and is currently involved in joint projects with six or seven. Beyond practical applications, these projects also aim to deepen cooperation between industry and academia to discover new areas of research. exploration for robotics.