Are you ready for robots?

By Gabrielle Stannus

Think your production nursery is too small to benefit now from recent improvements in robotics and artificial intelligence targeted towards broadscale cropping? University of Sydney researchers may just get you thinking again.

There has been much talk recently about how robots will improve farm productivity and environmental sustainability. We hear how driverless tractors, smart drones and irrigation technologies will drive automation in smart farms, monitor crop health and improve crop yields while reducing costs in the long term. Many potential users believe that technology is not quite ready for them to use. Robotic technology is perceived to favour large-scale farms pumping out high volumes of the same product.

Whilst recent robotic research has focussed on broadscale cropping in agriculture, there are opportunities to transfer that learning to other areas of the horticultural industry. Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney is keen to make existing robotic technology available to growers now, including that which with some minor adaptions would be suitable for use in production nurseries.

Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems
Professor Sukkarieh heads up the Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (HICRIS), a centre within the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney. Over the last ten years, the ACFR has pioneered the research, development and application of autonomous and intelligent robots, and artificial intelligence (AI) systems for use in outdoor environments, especially in agricultural settings.

HICRIS was jointly launched with Horticulture Innovation Australia (HIA) in October 2016. HICRIS is Australia’s first dedicated horticultural robotics learning and development hub with a focus on robotics to increase farm efficiency and productivity for the vegetable and tree crop industries. HICRIS researchers have designed robotics for different crops to conduct various on farm crop intelligence and manipulation tasks with numerous sensing systems including hyperspectral, thermal, infrared, panoramic vision, stereovision with strobe, LiDAR and GPS.

HICRIS’ initial research focussed on leafy vegetables crops with a view to building robotic system tools to become operational on farms. Trial robots undertook precision spraying and mechanical weeding, provided crop intelligence and monitored crop health through sensors and AI. Recent HICRIS research has focussed on specialty and tree crops, including apples, almonds, mangoes and bananas. These newer robots can line themselves up and drive over crops, collect and send data to farmers’ computers and perform tasks like spraying, weeding, trimming branches and harvesting fruits. “We are shifting decision-making from the paddock scale to the individual tree/plant scale”, claims Professor Sukkarieh.

Changes to the labour force
Professor Sukkarieh is keen to take technology out of the university and give it to growers, or as he says: “Put the (ro)bot in context of the farmer”. HICRIS research will continue to focus on autonomous harvesting. This will benefit farmers by reducing labour costs at harvest time. They will also expand their research into tree crops in terms of pruning and thinning
“In agriculture, the whole drive towards robotics is because farmers are not finding labour”, says Professor Sukkarieh, whilst pointing out that this situation may be different in production nurseries. Professor Sukkarieh says that automation can create new jobs. However, these jobs are generally more specialised than the ones replaced by robotics, and there are not as many of them.

Applications within the nursery industry
“We have learnt how to design and build robots to meet the very specific objectives of the agricultural industry”, says Professor Sukkarieh. Having focused on grains, vegetables and tree and row crops, Professor Sukkarieh is keen to share his knowledge with other areas of the horticultural industry, saying his team’s learning could be quite easily translated to a nursery setting.

Of the robots built by HICRIS, Professor Sukkarieh recommends its Digital Farmhand as being the one most applicable to the nursery industry now. This lower cost, easier to operate robot is designed for small-hold farming, not broadscale cropping. The Digital Farmhand has two electrically-powered wheel modules connected by a telescopic frame, with a smartphone on the top to collect data. HICRIS claims that the robot can be dismantled and reassembled on site in as little as ten minutes.

Professor Sukkarieh says that his team’s robotics and AI may also help the nursery industry to get the right seedlings to the market right from the very start by using crop intelligence to monitor seedling growth, health and viability. Apparently, genetic companies have expressed interested too as they continue to look for methods of improving the performance of crops very early on in the production process.

Seeking partnerships
Professor Sukkarieh is very keen to hear from producers in the nursery and garden industry with a view to collaboration. He invites potential industry partners to contact him at