Robotics to bring back young people to Australian farms

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The University of Sydney will gather sixty of the world’s top agricultural roboticists under one roof next week (2-6 February) to discuss future directions for the world’s horticultural and farming industries.

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According to Dr Robert Fitch, convener of the Summer School on Agricultural Robotics (SSAR) event, the meeting will see Australian and international experts present research and discuss their ideas on the future of this rapidly advancing field.

“Technological innovation such as robotics could save the world’s agricultural industries,” said Dr Fitch, himself an expert in experimental robotics.

According to available statistics, the number of farmers in Australia has dropped by 40% since 1981, mostly due to the reluctance of young people to remain in family farms. Moreover, nearly one quarter of farmers are at or above retirement age, which in line with worldwide trends.

However, Dr Fitch said new autonomous systems are already being developed to perform tasks such as pruning, thinning, harvesting, mowing, spraying, and weed removal, which he believes would help reverse this negative trend.

“Exciting new technologies including robotics has the potential to attract young people back to the sector which has experienced a steady decline over the past four decades in both environmental and human resources,” he said.

“Interest in agricultural robotics is motivated by the need to improve the processes that will inevitably feed the planet. Historically agriculture has benefited from technical innovations, and now must respond to significant new demands and pressures to increase efficiency.”

University of Sydney’s Professor Salah Sukkarieh, an international expert in the research, development and commercialisation of field robotic systems, said devices are also being developed that collect valuable real-time information that will enable new ways to estimate yield and reduce pesticide and herbicide use.

He said increasing demand from Asia had prompted the Australian Government to set aggressive targets for food production increases.

“One such target is to increase exports by 45% by year 2025,” Professor Sukkarieh said.

“Because natural resources are limited, achieving such goals must involve increasing the efficiency of production while at the same time engaging in environmental stewardship, and contending with rising human labour costs and diminishing availability of human labour.”