Tech

How the future of agriculture in Australia will be automated

The reason is known as Moravec’s ParadoxMachines are great at doing things humans are bad at, like quantum physics, but they struggle with basic physics that humans find simple.

“It seems to me one of the most intuitive things humans do. Just take people to the orchard and pick apples.” A machine to do just that.

A Ripe Robotics machine being tested in an apple orchard. Each test run collects data that improves the machine’s algorithms.

For robots, the challenges are manifold. Unlike warehouses, where automation has become commonplace, orchards do not have smooth surfaces for robots to move around. No street map to follow. No two apples he looks alike and no two trees he grows alike. This means that every time the robot goes to pick an apple, it has to be smart enough to analyze the whole tree and figure out what it’s aiming for and how to get there without getting stuck in a branch. Next, Ripe’s current test robot, Eve, named after the biblical picker of the forbidden fruit, can cut fruit from trees without leaving even the slightest trace that could cause supermarkets to slash their prices by 90%. Enough pressure should be applied to remove the fruit. And that’s before explaining the weather.

“It has to be done outdoors where it can be windy, rainy, snowy and 40 degrees hot. “It is difficult to identify fruits and assess their ripeness, especially under different lighting conditions.”

After all, the robot’s main selling point is that it can work longer hours than people who need food, drink, breaks, and restroom breaks in conditions that humans cannot, such as darkness. Tracking the origin of food and analyzing its quality may also have advantages, but that means robots must have the durability and power needed to keep their distance. increase.

Packing shed conditions are less complicated, but the basic challenge of quickly grabbing and moving unevenly shaped fruit remains.

Lyro co-founder Dr Nicole Robinson, who has a robotics background at the Queensland University of Technology, says there are challenges. Regular, nearly spherical fruits like apples are the easiest for machines to grab. Sweet potatoes, which come in a variety of sizes and twists, are in between. Small, finicky berries are the hardest.

Ripe has experimented with different types of gripping mechanisms for picking apples from trees. It turned out that the tubes needed too much power. Currently, the grip uses compressed air to suck the apples out of the tree.

Ripe has experimented with different types of gripping mechanisms for picking apples from trees. It turned out that the tubes needed too much power. Currently, the grip uses compressed air to suck the apples out of the tree.

However, in recent years there have been many innovations that can overcome the challenges. Computer chips have become much faster and more efficient, allowing robots to perform more complex tasks. The visual system that can identify items has improved dramatically. Internet in rural areas is faster and more reliable. Some farming practices also help, such as planting apple trees on ledges to make it easier for machines to move the orchards.

Robinson says the combination of advancing technology and big problems to solve is what drew her to the field. “If we can’t pick and pack the fruit on time, there is a lot of food loss. As you know, millions of tons are wasted every year.”

Food loss on farms has many causes, including disease, market prices, weather and labor shortages, but Robinson is right about the cost. alone reaches about $3 billion a year.

There is also an opportunity to move workers from difficult, monotonous and repetitive jobs on the farm to higher-skilled and higher-paying jobs, says Lyro general manager Mark Adams. That could mean analyzing produce, supervising machinery, performing skilled maintenance, and more. Boardman hopes it will be like that, too.

There are many roles in the former category.

According to Adams, it’s someone’s job to dab hot glue on each of the thousands of pineapples that come down the conveyor belt for eight to 10 hours a day, and someone else’s to apply the stickers. For example, it is someone’s job to put 42 peaches in each tray. Nothing more, nothing less. Someone has to cut all the cabbages that have stooped in the heat or cold. Common farm workers and machine operators have some of the highest rates of serious workplace injuries of any occupation, according to Safe Work Australia statistics.

And underpayment is rife on vicious farms. In 2018, an audit by the Fair Work Ombudsman found more than 200 companies in the industry violating wage laws.when Check again in 2020only 1 in 5 solved the problem.

But farming also has its benefits. At least before the pandemic, it helps keep regional centers struggling with declining populations. And governments on both sides of the political are defending contracts Australia has with Pacific island nations to grant visas to farm workers, providing workers with skills and cash to send back to their families. It claims to be a way to provide and deepen community ties. Competition for influence with China is fierce.

Agricultural work is demanding, repetitive and can occur in harsh conditions.

Agricultural work is demanding, repetitive and can occur in harsh conditions.credit:APs

The National Union of Labor, which represents garden workers, declined to give interviews to those involved.

Even if Adams is correct and farm workers become more skilled, it seems likely that automation will at least reduce the number of seasonal workers in the future. Economics doesn’t work any other way.

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So far, Lyro and Ripe are small companies, with the former’s last fundraising totaling about $1.5 million in capital and grants, and the latter about $1.2 million in large fundraising and equity.

Both plan to raise more money from investors to continue developing their robots, despite difficult conditions for raising capital for startups.Planning around $7000 to $8000 per month cost. This model means that different crops can be moved from farm to farm when they are in season.

Ripe is piloting deals this year with farmers looking to bring labor costs to about $60 per box of apples harvested. Once he’s picked a full bin to prove the concept, Lucas says he hopes to raise between $3 million and $5 million for Ripe to staff and grow its fleet of robots.

Avocado farmer Boardman says he will only use robots on a large scale if they are as fast as humans and competitively priced.

“I think it will take some time for robots to reach human speed,” Boardman said. “It’s really amazing what the human body can do compared to what robots can still do.”

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How the future of agriculture in Australia will be automated

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