Meet the professor who is revolutionizing Australian agriculture with robots

If you meet anyone in the Australian agricultural sector, they will tell you that the two biggest challenges they face are market volatility and climate change. There is also the very real fear that droughts will become more frequent, and that the cost of farming will not come down.
Professor Salah Sukkarieh thinks he might have a solution to these problems.
“The idea is to be able to use robots and sensors to help farmers do more on their land, but in a much more environmentally friendly way,” he told SBS Arabic24.
The University of Sydney robotics and intelligent systems professor and his team are working with Australian farmers to help them grow their crops smarter and more efficiently.
His research focuses on the deployment of drones and autonomous agricultural robots capable of collecting data, herding animals, undertaking precision seeding, smart spraying and chemical-free weeding.

Dr Salah Sukkarieh (right) poses with one of his agricultural robots Source: Provided

Born into a family of Arab migrants from Jordan and Lebanon who arrived in Australia in 1969, Salah Sukkariah grew up in Granville, in western Sydney.
He joined the University of Sydney in one of their first robotics courses and for the past 20 years he has been researching robotics in the agricultural sector.
“We’re not talking about really big machines that you would now find in farmers’ homes,” says Professor Sukkarieh.
“We’re talking about much smaller machines, two or three times the size of a lawnmower.”
He says he hopes this technology will also be available at a reasonable cost to small-scale farmers. “They’re very small, very light but they’re battery powered, they’re very energy efficient and they can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
“The problem we have is that by 2050 we’ll have 10 billion people on the planet, and we can’t keep the same farming practices that we do now because we’ll end up ruining the environment,” says the Dr Sukkarieh.
Agricultural robot in action

One of the machines developed by Dr Sukkarieh and his team in action Source: Provided

Australia has been hit by two severe droughts since its federation; between 1895 and 1902 in which the Darling and Murray rivers dried up, the other drought occurred between 1996 and 2010 and severely affected most southern growing areas.
More recently, persistent drought conditions have been Prime Minister Scott Morrisson’s number one priority since taking office in August.
A $5 billion fund was set up for drought-hit farmers in October, with the government advising farmers that drought conditions are not expected to lift until autumn next year.

NSW Australian of the Year Finalist

Among his many awards, Professor Sukkarieh was one of four finalists for the NSW Australian of the Year Award in 2018.
“I was shocked,” he said. “Especially when you see the other nominees and compare yourself to them, it’s a great honor, a privilege.”
Its ambition does not stop at the national level; he hopes other countries in the region will benefit from the technology he is developing with his team at the university.
“There are people who find it very difficult to feed themselves because they lack support on the farm,” says the professor.
He has turned down a few job offers from big companies because he says he wants the technology to be available to small farmers as well as big farmers.
“We want to reduce robotics to the price of a vacuum cleaner.”
Listen to the full audio in Arabic above

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