The Future of Farming: Agricultural Robots

Since Matthew and I finished our work with Chris and Neville on Thursday, we took our last day in Emerald as a chance to finally see these robots where David, Grant and our new roommate Hans spend most of their waking hours.

 

If you'll remember from previous posts, I explained that Neville is a farm financial advisor. He and Chris have invested in a new invention which will bring agriculture into the new age.  These robots perform much like the small automatic vacuum cleaners that wiz around your house cleaning for you. The robots I am talking about, however are much, much larger.

 

These robots are going to replace much of the heavy machinery needed to run farm operations.  They are designed to roam around farmer's pastures, locate weeds and spray them all on their own. The technology is new and so the inventor hired people like Grant to code and program the robots, while people like David weld the metal together and make sure everything is structurally sound. This project has been going on for several years and is now in the final stages of working out the kinks. Neville has been flying across the country, pitching the business idea to different companies. I had heard plenty about these robots and so the chance to see them was something I didn't want to pass up.

 

When we arrived a Dutch intern named Dini greeted us and showed us to the office where she and Grant did computer work. Grant focused on programing while she focused on testing the machines. After a quick look at Grant's impressive keyboard setup, we headed to the barn where I saw my first Case International combine on Australian soil. Just beyond the combine there was a buggy with a box of chemicals on the back of it, Dini pointed out that this was the original prototype for the robots.

 Grant, explaining his keyboard to us.  (Sorry it's blurry..)

Grant, explaining his keyboard to us.  (Sorry it's blurry..)

 

As we continued walking we eventually stopped at the sight of two orange machines that were properly named Charlie 1 and Charlie 2. These were the third generation designs that were currently being tested and improved. As I stopped to stare and take it all in I realized that I was literally looking at the future of world-wide agriculture.  This was innovative technology that was barely on the market, yet it was such a great idea I knew it wouldn't be long before it was the market.

 

 Charlie 2, the latest and greatest model from Swarm Farm.

Charlie 2, the latest and greatest model from Swarm Farm.

Dini began answering my questions about the machine as quickly as I fired them.  I learned that the machine operates on a GPS similar to that which runs tractors now days. The GPS learns the coordinates and measurements of each individual field and the obstacles that lie within the field. This gives the robot an exact area to cover.

 

At the opposite end of the computer parts there is what looks like a chemical sprayer or a boom. Just under each sprayer there are small white boxes with a form of technology that scans the earth in search of certain plants. When a plant (weed) is found, the scanner tells the system to spray the needed chemicals while avoiding the plants around it. Here lies the magic.  The machine is able to both spot spray and blanket spray meaning the work it can do is versatile.  Not only could a farmer spray for weeds with this technology, but they could also set up the robots to go out and spray an entire field of crops with fertilizer.  

 

The entire system is designed to free up the amount of work and machinery it takes farmers to spray their fields.  An example of this is sod farmers.  Sod farmers grow grass with the intention of cutting it into strips and selling it for people's front lawns.  One important rule for grass cutting is that it is supposed to be cut at night so the grass won't burn from too much sun exposure.  A small time farmer doesn't have the time to work all day and all night, neither do they have the extra money to hire someone to come cut during the night.  With this technology the farmer can rig up the robot to spray fertilizer on the grass during the day and then at night he can switch out the end piece and set the machine to cut the grass overnight while he sleeps.  This is how one machine can help raise the efficiency for a single family farm.  This should maximize results while minimizing human error.  

 

After grasping the back end of the machine, I moved to the front and asked Grant to point out the insides of the machine. Inside I found a ton of wires, a wifi modem and the workings of the GPS. There was even a small computer which holds all of the codes Grant writes and submits via wifi connection. Brilliant!

Each wire ran from the computer to the sprayer, specifically knowing how much to spray when and where depending on the coding entered into the machine.  There are even depth and humidity sensors that tell the machine how deep to plow and plant.  This is all possible by changing the back end of the machine.  

 The brains of the machine.

The brains of the machine.

 

It is a hydrostatic machine. Meaning it's all run by hydraulic systems rather than axles and transmissions. (While I've had many lessons on the mechanics of all this, I won't embarrass myself by trying to explain it all here.) 

 

On the front of the machine there are bumpers that automate a halt should the machine run into anything. This is where I really started to see the vacuum robot analogy.  While this is very handy should the machine run into an unidentified object, it is also the last defence mechanism for the machine.  With the GPS and sensor technologies it is unlikely that the machine will run into things.  As I mentioned earlier, major obstacles within each field are programmed into the system before it ever begins working.  You wouldn't want to tear up a new machine! 

 One of the front bumpers.

One of the front bumpers.

 

In the middle of our tour a friendly face introduced himself as Andrew and shook hands with both Matthew and I before retreating to his office for a Skype meeting. I later learned that Andrew is the brains and operation of the entire project. Being a farmer with a background in sales of sorts, he and his wife came up with the idea to increase the efficiency of farming. The idea started with his frustrations of the recent farming trends that he calls “a race to see who can get the biggest and fastest equipment on the market.” But what Andrew is doing at Swarm Farms, is creating a machine that is one sixteenth of the weight of industry standard machines.

 

Because the robots are small and lightweight, they can do a more detailed and efficient job than the larger machines. The robots are also designed to run slowly and smoothly 24/7 so they can ensure high quality results. Andrew's vision is to bring the technology age where it hasn't quite gone yet—to the farm.

 

The commercial launch just began in March of this year and Neville, being the Director of Business Development, has been a huge part in getting the business off the ground. Grant, too, has been a major part of the developing. I learned his official title is “Mechatronics Engineer.” Talk about a great post-college gig!

 

As I tried to soak in the hugeness of this operation, I couldn't help but think how lucky I was to see the ground roots of this operation up close. I have no doubt that this is a very real future for agriculture. Investors in Japan and China have already shown interest in the technology and I will delight in the day that I see these robots swarm around Oklahoma.   

To learn more you can check out www.swarmfarm.com.