Development needed to keep ag bots progressing

Development needed to keep ag bots progressing


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BOT BLOKES: The team from Swarm Farm, Tom Holcombe, Emerald, Qld, Dustin van Nek, Emerald, Qld and Neville Crook, Emerald, Qld in front of the autonomous field robot, the SwarmBot.

BOT BLOKES: The team from Swarm Farm, Tom Holcombe, Emerald, Qld, Dustin van Nek, Emerald, Qld and Neville Crook, Emerald, Qld in front of the autonomous field robot, the SwarmBot.

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It's the development, not research, which is holding back robotics being further incorporated into agriculture, according to SwarmFarm.

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INCORPORATING robots into modern agriculture shouldn't be a complex process, according to Neville Crook.

While he's got the gear on the ground to prove it, getting backers for further development is proving the real challenge.

The representative of SwarmFarm Robotic Agriculture was one of the guest speakers at the Future Farming Masterclass at the AgroTrend field days at Bundaberg last week.

Mr Crook is the director of business development for the company which aims to bring practical robotics into farming operations.

Mr Crook has 20 years experience as an agronomist in cotton, grain and horticulture and for the past decade has worked as a finance and agribusiness consultant.

In his presentation, he emphasised that robotics had been around for a long time, particularly with use in the military.

"Robots aren't complicated but they are machines," Mr Crook said.

"It's nothing hard guys. There's nothing here, we can't buy off eBay."

A key driver to the SwarmFarm focus is creating machines which are practical and field-ready.

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The SwarmFarm team provided a basic demonstration of SwarmBot where the driverless unit followed a selected course over a grassed area.

The diesel-driven robot was equipped with spray equipment to illustrate how it is used out in the field.

The particular machine on display had done thousands of hours of in-field work, proving the accessibility to agriculture robotics.

The robot is modular in its design which means if something goes wrong, the grower can remove the part, replace it with another and keep on working.

"Any part can be replaced in less than 45 minutes by a farmer," Mr Crook said.

WEED SEEKER: Although not demonstrated, the SwarmBot is set-up to detect and spray weeds autonomously.

WEED SEEKER: Although not demonstrated, the SwarmBot is set-up to detect and spray weeds autonomously.

When it comes to driving the sector forward, Mr Crook said it wasn't research that was holding things up; it was the development into useful applications.

"This robot is a platform, a bit like a tractor. By itself, it does nothing. It has to have tools. We are screaming for all these tools," he said.

"The RDCs haven't funded us for any of this. We find it pretty demoralising. There are millions of dollars of research out there but nobody is using it.

"There is no money in development."

In November last year, the company entered into a partnership with Bosch Australia to develop its next generation of agricultural robots.

MODULAR: The SwarmBot is modular in its design so that anything can be removed and replaced with standard tools.

MODULAR: The SwarmBot is modular in its design so that anything can be removed and replaced with standard tools.

The partnership will allow SwarmFarm to develop the final production model of the SwarmBot ahead of commercial sales to farmers in mid-2018.

The business model for SwarmFarm is not about selling robots but more about the company being a service provider.

"We believe we will never be able to sell them," Mr Crook said.  

"The technology is changing so much that in three years time, you probably won't want that machine.

"Our concept is that we will do a three-year service agreement which includes all the updates and all the services. You just have to operate it." 

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