Article – Could weed-zapping Daleks be the new farmer's friend, with robots roaming crops?

30 July 2014
Sally Bryant
ABC Rural
If you grew up watching cartoons like the Jetsons, you could be forgiven for being disappointed at how slow society has been in developing robots to make our lives easier.
The vision of cartoonists in the 1960s was of a modern life rich with robots; robotic domestic staff, totally automated flying cars and even robotic pets.
It’s 2014, and so far there are only limited cases of robots appearing in our everyday life, with the odd vacuum cleaner patrolling a suburban house.
However, a few factors have combined in the past decade to bring the age of the robot closer, at least in the field of agriculture.

Professor of robotics at the Queensland University of Technology, Tristan Perez, says the rising cost of fossil fuels and the increasing resistance of weeds to traditional herbicides, are jointly influencing a rapidly growing interest in the agricultural potential of robotics for a farming application.
“In recent years we have seen farming machinery become bigger and bigger, more and more expensive, and that has some serious disadvantages.
“If your very large machine breaks down, then everything stops.
“You have to wait for it to be fixed to continue your work.
“Imagine if that very large, very expensive machine could be replaced by a ‘swarm’ of robotic, independently operating, small machines. How that might impact on your operation?”
Professor Perez says a group of small robots, operating independently of each other, could continue to operate if one of them breaks down and that would have huge benefits in farming.
But he says there are even bigger gains to be made in using smaller machinery.
“Agricultural machinery has been getting bigger and bigger.
“It’s got to the stage where it really is about as big as it can get and that has implications, in terms of soil compaction on farm.

AgBot is a light-weight, golf buggy-sized robotPHOTO: AgBot is a light-weight, golf buggy-sized robot that has been specifically designed to reduce the environmental impact of weeding.(Supplied: Queensland University of Technology)

“This would also be addressed by using a series of smaller independent machines rather than one big one.”
There are additional benefits in using a ‘swarm’ of smaller machines, according to Professor Perez.
“We have been speaking with researchers in Victoria, about using microwaves to destroy weeds.
“That would not be feasible to use in a tractor which is moving at 20 kilometres an hour, but could very well be done from a robot.”
Other options such as swarms of solar-powered robots patrolling crops for weeks on end, killing weeds and monitoring crop health, it’s all on the table.
Weed-zapping Daleks, roaming free like automated maremma dogs, nurse-maiding the crops and warding off attacks by bugs and weeds?
Well, maybe not quite yet, says Professor Perez.
It’s early days, but who knows what the future holds?
“Because who could have predicted what has happened with smart phones, how far they’ve come, when mobile phones were first released? This could go the same way”.
QUT weed robot prototype
Courtesy of ABC Rural