Australia takes a lead in developing ‘agbots’

AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS are being developed in a very unexpected way in Australia through a collaboration between Swarm Farm and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). ‘Agbots’ are not too far away from the paddock.

Agbots happen to be a new field of endeavour for Central Queensland farmer Andrew Bate, who has been working in collaboration with QUT and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics to develop robots as, he said, “an enabling technology to do things farmers could not do before”. 

The agbot future, as Mr Bate envisions it, involves swarms of small task-specific robots managing vital processes in ways that humans cannot. Mr Bate’s agbot development company, SwarmFarm Robotics, illustrates his vision – swarms of agbots conducting plant and soil maintenance and improvement tasks such as bug and weed removal, at any hour of the day or night and in any weather conditions – superseding current chemical treatment systems.

Mr Bate said the ‘big’ automation programs for Australian farmers had gone about as far as they could go, with ploughing, planting and harvesting systems now so big that they created a range of counterproductive problems of their own.

In fact, it was while considering how to deal with the deep tracks cut across his land from these massive systems that Mr Bate began to contemplate better solutions through agbots.


The traditional methods for boosting production, such as chemical treatments and doing everything on an ever-larger scale, were not cutting it anymore, Mr Bate said. He said Australia, because of its previous herbicide use, now had the “unenviable record” of having the second highest number of herbicide resistant weed species of any country.

“The cost (of extra herbicide use) to Australia’s grain industry alone is estimated to be $200 million a year,” Mr Bate said. “The technology that pushed agriculture for the past 20 years has plateaued. Along the way we have forgotten about slow farming – slow, accurate, precise – we have been dining out on a fast food burn.

“Thinking about this was how I got onto the world of agriculture, robotics and collaborations,” he said.

Mr Bate often illustrates his point by citing the 300 horsepower, 36m wide spraying machine used on his family’s Bendee Farm that got him thinking about “a better way” in the first place. He lamented that in every second of its operation that machine was passing over 28,000 individual plants.

“All equipment like this is the same,” he said. “You are dealing with wheel widths and there are limits caused by the compaction of the soil and the destruction of crop that results,” Mr Bate said.

 “Up until now, more efficient has meant larger and larger, but it’s wrecking the crop production. I’m convinced that every time we go bigger we go backwards.”

Mr Bate began developing a plan for swarms of small robots which could, if necessary, operate on an individual plant improvement basis. He felt the capability to do this was the Holy Grail of farm productivity and long-term sustainability.

“We want to slow down, assess every individual plant and tend to its exact needs on a plant-by-plant basis,” Mr Bate said. “This may mean applying fertiliser or fungicide only to plants that really need it, rather than applying treatment to entire areas of the field.

“Small robots also reduce the soil compaction (of current large machinery). We are talking about machines that weigh a couple of hundred kilos rather than a 21 tonne spray rig.”


Mr Bate embarked on a global search for such technologies, focusing on the United States where, he figured, there must be developments that could be brought back to Australia and adapted.

Most of that research turned out to be directed at military and mining applications, not agribusiness.

On his return home he instead met with Hugh Durant-White from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics – now chief executive of NICTA – who introduced him to a fledgling program at QUT in Brisbane, which was set to lead the world in agricultural robotics development.  

Mr Bate’s swarm robotics system could form the experiential cornerstone of new QUT research area, headed by Peter Corke, it was realised, and an Australian Research Centre grant was successfully sought.

Mr Bate said robotics had the potential to dramatically improve the way Australia produced food, from managing microbiology in the soil through to how sunlight is absorbed into plant leaves.

“This is pull research, not push research,” Mr Bate said, describing his own family farming business as always being “an early adopter” of new technologies. The difference this time was that he was determined to fit the new technology to meet the farming problem, rather than the other way around.

“From the earliest days of industrialisation in agriculture, farmers have talked about the Holy Grail of farming – the driverless tractor,” Mr Bate said. “But in the modern world of agribusiness, the concept of a driverless tractor is already obsolete.”

He was also not overly enthusiastic about drone technologies, which was what many people associated with future farm automation.

“What are we going to use them for?” Mr Bate said. “Precision farming or ‘precision ag’ has been around for more than 20 years. The idea was that we could collect all this crop data and use it to better manage areas of our paddock. Big data may be a new thing in business, but we got it 20 years ago. We have been collecting data – crop yield, grain protein, near infra red images, satellite images, EM (electron microscope) scans – all sorts of data. Most farmers have got hard drives full of this stuff. Lots of pretty maps, but very few are using it for anything useful.

“Pretty much any data that we can get from drones we can already get from a piloted plane at a competitive cost. A thousand dollars will buy a lot of flight time in a piloted aircraft to collect whatever data you want, but few farmers are willing to do this. Still, everyone is excited by drones to collect more data that no-one seems to be bothered to use at the moment.

“More data doesn’t equal more productivity – we already have information overload.”


Mr Bate was more concerned with the direct application of robots to precision tasks.

“What can we do with robots to increase yield, efficiency and improve the environmental impact of farming? The first thing people tend to say to me is that robots will save us so much on wages – but I don’t think so,” he said.

“We already have the labour saving devices now – they are the 36m spray rigs, the 60m planters … It’s getting pretty lonely on the farm – we only have about one person per 5000 acres now, and I don’t think we can do with any less people.”

Instead, Mr Bate said, his research of robotics for agriculture pointed towards agbots that were small, simple, inexpensive with very few moving parts and robust electronic systems. These agbots are all about helping farmers, big or small, to boost production and quality, he said.

SwarmFarm agbots are small, simple machines that do simple tasks very well. They are at a cost level accessible to all farmers and are able to be adapted to local conditions – plus, importantly, they are scalable.

“While governments in developing nations are eager to become self-sufficient, or at least produce as much food as they can, other nations are becoming more concerned about sustainability, environmental impact and the quality and health of the food they are consuming,” Mr Bate said.

“A potato farmer in Russia will want to have robots perform different tasks to a potato farmer in Victoria.”

He described a new microwave technology developed at the University of Melbourne that can be used to kill weeks accurately and efficiently. This is the kind of technology that SwarmFarm agbots could utilise, identifying weeds, ‘frying’ them, then moving on to the next one. Suitably powered, such robots could spend their entire time in the paddock.

“Even more exciting, I think, are the ideas that we have not even thought of yet – ideas that we will start having when they are out in the field and people start thinking more laterally about applications for robots,” Mr Bate said.

Mr Bate and his SwarmFarm team have been working with two QUT PhD students, Patrick Ross and Andrew English, along with project leader Dr David Ball. The project is also partnered with the Australian Centre for Field Robotics with Dr David Fysh and PhD student Tom Patten.

While most of the early work centred on object avoidance systems and swarm techniques, progress has been rapid and the project is just months away from releasing model prototypes. Mr Bate is eager to see Queensland lead the world in swarm farming agbots.

“Robots will give us increased yields, increased efficiencies and better environmental outcomes. Simple.”



AusBuy on the attack over Chinese dairy farm purchases in Victoria

AUSTRALIAN ownership advocate body AusBuy is attacking government decision makers over a Chinese company’s planned investment in “40 to 50 farms in Victoria including the Glenormiston Agriculture College”.

“What is wrong with our governments that they would consider allowing the Chinese Government’s State owned enterprise to buy 40 to 50 dairy farms, and the Victorian State Government to then lease the Glenormiston Agricultural College to them to train their people, who would enjoy private accommodation for 150 people?” asked AusBuy CEO Lynne Wilkinson ahead of a regional farmers meeting on the issue last month.

“Yet the Victorian State Government stopped funding for this facility, and Melbourne University and TAFE did not manage it well, leaving farmers with no access to this asset.”

But the dairy industry in Victoria seems broadly supportive of the move – at least in recent statements by the Victorian Farmers Federation and Australian Dairy Farmers – as the industry is badly in need of investment and must open up new markets.

Tasmanian group Linear Capital is orchestrating negotiations through a joint venture company supported by Chinese interests, Farm Gate 88 Pty Ltd, and has stated proposals were for “a major development of infant formula production plants in New South Wales and Victoria for the export of infant formula to China”.

The proposal is to take milk from farms in the region, including those proposed to be purchased by the group in a rumoured $400 million deal, then process and value-add to those products before export to China.

Statements on the Linear Capital website describe negotiations with ‘major Chinese state-owned enterprises’ to invest in dairy farms and processing plants in Victoria and New South Wales.

“Linear Capital has sourced substantial milk supplies direct from regional farms for long term contracts in Victoria and Tasmania and in conjunction with Farm Gate 88 Pty Ltd through their operational facilities in New South Wales substantial milk supplies from the Riverina region. Linear Capital through these strategic alliances are seeking further alliances with Chinese enterprises to co-operate in investment, production and technology.”

Linear Capital managing director Troy Harper told the regional The Standard newspaper the plan was to use the college to train Chinese and local people in best-practice animal husbandry.

“It will not be international workers versus national workers,” Mr Harper reportedly said. “The Chinese are very interested in our animal husbandry. We are some of the best in the world at it. The Chinese are not that good at it. The Chinese are coming to learn from us.”

AusBuy’s Ms Wilkinson said it was a sorry state for Glenormiston Agricultural College, which was donated to the government by the Black family to be held in perpetuity as an agribusiness training facility for the region.

“The long established Black family have farmed in the area for generations and donated the land and college to the state to be used in the interests of Australian agriculture and our farmers, and that it remained as an agriculture college,” Ms Wilkinson said.

“No Australian government is entitled to give priority to off shore interests as appears to be the case here. If Australia is to thrive again, why would we sell these dairy farms to the same country we are in a rush to sign Free Trade Agreements, so they effectively sell to themselves?

“Our governments seem to consistently give priority to off shore interests. We may be (in) ‘showing off’ time at the G20, but ‘open for business’ means whose business? No other developed country is so naïve as to allow the sale of strategic assets that were built by our own people to other countries, global companies or superannuation funds. What’s in it for Australia?”

Ms Wilkinson said the fears for the future shape of Australian dairy farming were real.

“Questions must be asked,” she said. “Will they meet Australian standards? Will they pay their imported workers the same as required of local businesses here under our employment laws? Will they determine the price our milk is sold off shore, and potentially drive down the income of our own farmers? Will they limit access for local processors to milk supplies for Australian consumers?”

Ms Wilkinson said AusBuy saw the situation as the latest flashpoint in a long-term decline in conditions for Australian farmers that mean the best way out is to sell for foreign interests – the only ones offering the right price.

“The question is often asked: Why are the farmers selling?” Ms Wilkinson said.

“Poor policies over decades have driven profits down and debt up, and we have not counted this since 1998. How can we make decisions as a nation if we do not look at the consequences of our decisions?

“A business that did not know its true financial position for over 16 years or know who really owns wealth creating assets for over 40 years would not survive, yet our governments tell our farmers and our businesses to be productive and competitive.

“Other countries do not have the answers. We need to engage and support our own people first to build our future. Those that have survived are among the most productive and competitive in the world, but they are required to play to a different set of rules to their competitors the local referees favour the other sides.

“More than 90 percent of our dairy brands are foreign owned. How does Australia benefit from assets generations of Australians have built? If it is not owned here, the decisions, profits, jobs, skills and reinvestment are at risk.”


US manufacturer AGCO focuses on hi-tech systems

THE SHAPE of things to come may be gleaned from the move by one of the world’s largest agricultural manufacturing companies, US-based AGCO, forming a joint venture with aerospace and agriculture machine control and technology developer Appareo Systems.

Formally, the partnership has been described as building on AGCO’s Intelligent Agricultural Solutions (IAS) program, which centres on data collection, wireless communication, advanced sensors and intelligent machine control.

But this is more than incremental technology gain for AGCO’s existing brands – they include Challenger, Fendt, GSI, Massey Ferguson and Valtra – this is a move seeking to discover what the next generation of precision agriculture and precision machine management should look like.

Appareo chairman and CEO, Barry Batcheller said he envisaged the partnership would enable “the unprecedented infusion of new to the world technologies into production agriculture”.

“Appareo is very excited about forming this exciting new partnership with AGCO, the world’s largest manufacturer focused strictly on agricultural equipment,” Mr Batchellor said.

The joint venture will be enacted through AGCO Technology Solutions.

“As the agricultural industry shifts, there is a greater need for more advanced technology, and we anticipate that this partnership will provide breakthrough innovation making our customers more profitable while supporting their mixed fleet operations,” ACGO senior vice president for advanced technology solutions, Eric Hansotia said.


Rural scholarship offers $5,000 a year

THE Rural Industries R&D Corporation (RIRDC) is again seeking submissions for its Horizon Scholarships, aimed at school leavers looking to start an agriculture-related university degree.

The Horizon Scholarship by RIRDC, in partnership with industry sponsors, provides $5,000 per year for the duration of a student’s university degree.

The Horizon Scholarship also offers students annual industry work placements that give them first-hand exposure to modern agricultural practices, access to industry leaders, professional development workshops and opportunities to network and gain knowledge at a range of industry events.

RIRDC managing director, Craig Burns said the Horizon Scholarship would appeal to university students who want to broaden their networks, are passionate about agriculture and are ready to develop their leadership skills.

“The current scholars and the scholarship’s alumni are testament to the success and quality of the Horizon Scholarship,” Mr Burns said.

“They are driven, energetic, passionate and want to be future leaders of Australia’s agricultural industries and we look forward to having several more new scholars join this special group in 2015.”

Applications for the Horizon Scholarship must be submitted by January 30, 2015.


New research centre aims to transform food industry

A NEW Australian Research Council (ARC) training centre at the University of Queensland’s St Lucia Campus is being dedicated to creating healthier foods and preparing Australia for a surge in Asian market demand.

ARC chief executive officer Aidan Byrne said the research training centre would focus on “training a cohort of innovative scientists” who will facilitate transformation of the Australian food industry.

Led by the University of Queensland, the centre will combine the expertise of principal partner, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, as well as collaborating partners the International Rice Research Institute, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Wuhan University and Huazhong University of Science.

The ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre, which Professor Byrne said had a mission statement of  being ‘Agents of change: transforming the food industry for Australia, Asia and beyond’, has been awarded $2.7 million over three years from the ARC through the Industrial Transformation Research Program.

Prof. Byrne said its broad aim was to ensure Australia was prepared for the challenge to create and market healthier foods and to respond to a surging demand from Asia’s expanding markets — both within a resource-constrained world.

“This new training centre will graduate at least 13 innovation scientists in areas such as health and nutrition, consumer and sensory science, agrifood value chains and business leadership,” Prof. Byrne said.

“These scientists will provide transformative input into the food industry to create and promote healthier foods for Australian and, in particular, Asian markets.

“Food and agribusiness is a key sector identified by the Australian Government in its new Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda. This training centre will play an important role in undertaking research to secure a healthier global food supply.”

The training centre’s director is professor Melissa Fitzgerald, an expert in rice quality and breeding who has extensive connections with rice improvement programs in Asia.

Prof. Fitzgerald has pioneered the development of international research networks in her field.


Lead on ‘superfoods’ from Europe?

AUSTRALIAN food producers can take heart from new research in Europe, being presented through the upcoming Health ingredients (Hi) Europe trade show, that this major market is moving strongly to a so-called ‘superfoods’ focus on health and nutrition.

A major part of that movement is based on perceptions about the source of those superfoods – and Australian producers can play to advantage in this space, according to organisers of the event, Food ingredients Global.

Hi Europe is expecting 8000 delegates to the event being staged at Amsterdam RAI on December 2-4, and focusing on Europe’s increased demand for protein alternatives, knowledge on ingredients’ sources and superfoods.

“Today’s consumers no longer find the ‘five fruit and veg a day’ message relevant,” said Food ingredients Portfolio marketing director Georgina Smith. “Consumers now want to know where their food is sourced, how it is prepared and if the food provides them with an added extra and a super-boost of health, energy and the vitamins they need to help them perform and feel better.

“It is also evident through market research that these consumers will pay more for such food and those food manufacturers that meet these requirements will be highly successful. Hi Europe provides a unique and innovative platform for food manufacturers to find the key ingredients to enhance their current product offerings and to help drive innovation in this imminently booming market.”

The food consumption trends cited by Hi Europe also bear out the research of CSIRO, which has mainly focused on Asia Pacific demand. The quest for protein globally is one of the biggest opportunities for Australian agribusiness. The issue of food source and sustainability of production is high on the European agenda, as it is in Asia.

However, there are also some fringe offerings at Hi Europe that may open up some very unusual opportunities for innovative Australian agribusinesses – such as insect harvesting.

Exhibitor Ana Christina Day, founder and CEO of 4ento, said more than 1,000 species of edible insects currently exist, including water beetles, wasps and larvae.

“It only takes 1 litre of water to produce 1kg of crickets, in comparison to 22,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef”, making insects, not only a great source of protein and minerals, but highly sustainable,” Ms Day said.

Other exhibitors at the event are focused in manufacturing and promoting ‘superfood’ products, another area of expertise in Australia.

The event is part of the UBMLive group, an arm of the global events and media organisation UBM, previously known as United Business Media.



Keogh wins prestigious agri leadership prize

AUSTRALIAN Farm Institute (AFI) executive director Mick Keogh has taken out the 2014 Rabobank Leadership Award, recognised for his outstanding contribution to Australia and New Zealand’s food, beverage and agribusiness sectors.

Mr Keogh – the driving force in establishing the AFI, an independent agricultural policy research body, and a key player in Australian agricultural policy debate for more than a decade – was presented with award in front of more than 200 Australian and New Zealand agribusiness industry professionals at the annual Rabobank Leadership Dinner in Sydney in October. 

Queensland cattle producer and beef industry advocate Bryce Camm was named the Rabobank Emerging Leader, an award category introduced in 2013 recognising up-and-coming young leaders in agribusiness.

Presenting Mr Keogh’s award last night, Rabobank Australia chief executive officer Thos Gieskes said, in establishing and leading the national policy and research body, the Australian Farm Institute, Mr Keogh had played a major role in informing policy direction for Australia’s vital agricultural industries.

“Mick Keogh is an ‘unsung hero’ in Australian agriculture,” Mr Gieskes said.  “He has made an outstanding contribution to the food, beverage and agribusiness sectors through his extensive and long-standing work in agricultural policy over a number of decades.

 “While Mick has not himself been directly responsible for the P&L of an individual agribusiness, his work at the forefront of strategic research into public policy issues which impact Australian agriculture and in representing the interests of Australian farmers, has undoubtedly had a far-reaching impact on the prosperity of the sector as a whole.”

The peer-nominated Rabobank Leadership Award is presented to individuals who create sustainable growth and prosperity at both a corporate and industry level in agribusiness, while demonstrating a wider commitment to society.

Mr Gieskes said, as a specialist in agricultural banking, Rabobank was in a unique position to see the talent, initiative and effort needed to develop and grow agricultural businesses and the wider sector.

Mr Keogh was raised on his family farm ‘Wyola’ near Holbrook in southern New South Wales, which has given him as strong connection to the agricultural industry. He is now one of the fourth generation of family members involved in the operation which includes beef, wool and prime lamb, and grains.

Completing tertiary study at a graduate and postgraduate level through the University of NSW, Mr Keogh furthered his knowledge in agricultural science, particularly in wool and pastoral sciences. This led him to a career in agribusiness consultancy where he was involved in a range of projects within the sector domestically and in China.

Mr Keogh subsequently spent 10 years with NSW Farmers Association as both deputy CEO and policy director.

In 2004, he became founding executive director of the AFI when it commenced operations. A national agricultural policy and research body organisation, the institute is independent of government and funded by industry.

Mr Keogh deems his biggest achievement to date as founding the AFI, referring to the process as an “interesting challenge”.

“As a concept, the Australian Farm Institute was completely new,” Mr Keogh said.  “It came at a time where there was significant change taking place in agricultural policy and very few dedicated resources existed to really look at the implications of policy and what it means for Australian agriculture and agribusiness companies.”

Mr Keogh said the institute provided an ideal vehicle to look at policies coming down the pipeline and delve into the implications for industry.

“I think I have always had a fascination with the processes involved in growing, transforming and marketing agricultural products, which make running an agricultural business so incredibly complex. When you add to that the extra layer of complexity arising from policy decisions, agriculture really is an incredibly challenging, but also very rewarding sector to be involved in,” he said.

Mr Keogh said it was “tremendously gratifying” to have some of his work recognised through the Leadership Award.

“We have a fairly small team at the Australian Farm Institute and I would regard this award as recognition of the work of my colleagues and the entire Institute team, including board members and advisory council members, rather than the work of any individual,” Mr Keogh said.

“It’s also very humbling to look at the previous recipients of this award, all of whom are highly respected leaders in agriculture. It’s daunting to be placed in that same group, after having looked up to those people over the years.”

Mr Keogh is “immensely” positive about the future of the Australian agricultural industry and says there are some great opportunities he believes will unfold for the sector.

“It’s a bit cliché but the boom in middle class consumption in Asia is going to without doubt create opportunities for Australian agriculture and agribusiness,” Mr Keogh said.

“It’s not going to be like the past where all we had to do was produce it and it would sell, we are in a much more competitive environment now, but the situation actually suits Australian agriculture.

“The emerging middle class consumers increasingly want to know where the product has come from, they want to know that it’s safe and they are focused on the reputation of a product. All of those factors will mean that many Australian products can actually secure a premium in those markets and can compete in markets where success isn’t solely determined by price. We are already seeing that in relation to the dairy industry and to some extent the beef and lamb industries.”

Mr Keogh said the challenge would be to retain that premium reputation and take advantage of it.

“There is real merit in having a single common brand or profile for Australian agricultural products – not to replace private brands, but to actually underpin them” Mr Keogh said.

“I think there is a lot of waste at the moment with different Australian states pushing their own profile and that is unfortunate because when you get to China, for example, there is very little awareness of individual Australian states. There is, however, good recognition of Australia and its reputation for quality and safety, but to build on that we need more national coordination.”

A peer-judged award, previous recipients include food and agri corporate heads John Watson, Max Ould, John McLean, Nick Burton-Taylor, Robert Hill-Smith and Barry Irvin, leading food scientists Dr Bruce Lee and Dr Jim Peacock, as well as last year’s winner, Sir George Fistonich of Villa Maria Estate.

The Rabobank Leadership Dinner was held at the Harbour View Ballroom, at Taronga Zoo.  Keynote speaker was Lino Saputo Junior, chief executive of global dairy company Saputo.



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