SwarmFarm® Robotics, an Australian startup, has developed an autonomous herbicide spot-spraying system that will go into commercial service in 2018 on a contract basis.
Prototype machines have been in evaluations in Australia for the last couple of years in crop and turf production, among other settings. No word on pricing nor when the machines might be available outside of Australia.
The company received a significant boost when it entered into a partnership with the Australian subsidiary of Bosch, the German engineering and electronics company. Bosch is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of automotive components.
The SwarmFarm system is built around small robotic machines that can work solo or cooperatively in groups or “swarms” – hence, the company’s name. If a sprayer slows down to treat heavier populations of weeds, other sprayers in the group swarm into that part of the field to help with the workload.
Andrew Bate, a grain farmer in Australia’s state of Queensland, began experimenting with autonomous spraying and the swarm concept early in the decade.
Robotics, Bate notes, is a “scalable technology.”
“Each robot is the same, so you just scale up to the number you need.” A small farmer, he says, may only require 5 robotic sprayers. A larger grower “may have 15 or 20 with the same technology.”
Because the machines are seeking out weeds and only spot spraying, less herbicide is needed. In some comparisons, chemical usage dropped by 40%.
The machines weigh in at about 10% of the heft of a conventional sprayer, the company estimates, and the units can be deployed multiple times in the same field to pick up new escapes. The idea is to catch plants while they’re still small and easy to control – and before they can set seeds.
Bate and his wife, Jocie, operate the company from their farm in central Queensland where a team of programmers and engineers brought the concept to life. Now, SwarmFarm’s staff has grown to 12. Two universities also provided software and engineering assistance.
In their current configuration, each robot carries a 26-foot boom fitted with eight WEEDit® optical cameras, 40 nozzles and a 159-gallon spray tank. How long the spray solution lasts will depend on weed density. When the tank runs dry, the machine returns to a docking station for a refill.
Currently, a person must be on hand to replenish the liquid, although an automatic refilling system is in the works. The sprayer holds enough diesel to run about 18 hours. The docking station – called the SwarmHive® – includes weather monitors that can shut down operations if wind speed or other factors exceed safety or efficacy limitations. Operators also can monitor and control the sprayers remotely via an iPad app.
At this point, the units are set up for “green on brown” weed identification and have mainly been run in fallow-field situations. A “green on green” option is expected, allowing the robots to single out weeds in growing crops.
As at least one university weed scientist points out, the automated approach opens the door for microwave-based weed control. Microwave weeding is possible and scientists have tinkered with the idea for years. But it’s also wildly impractical from a moving tractor. However, a SwarmFarm machine could pause over a weed and zap it with a lethal dose of microwaves before moving to the next target.
The design allows for third-party companies to develop apps and attachments for the SwarmFarm platform. The sprayer’s parts also are interchangeable and mostly “plug and play” for quick repairs.
“This is technology developed by farmers for farmers,” says Campbell Newman, fomer SwarmFarm board chairman and a founding shareholder. “It’s not technology developed by a technology company where people think they know what farmers need.”
A self-styled geek and a former premier of Queensland who also worked in the grain trade, Newman says that much of the emphasis in ag robotics has been on fitting existing equipment platforms with guidance systems and some degree of autonomous technology. The SwarmFarm system starts, instead, with a fresh platform built to do a tedious task – spot spraying – and it frees up farmers and their employees for other work.
He also now sees an opportunity for Australia to carve out a place in the burgeoning ag tech sector. Newman, who grew up on a family farm in Tasmania, believes innovations will be accepted by farmers when they serve a pratical purpose and contribute to the farm’s bottom line. The SwarmFarm concept meets that criteria, he contends.
That’s aside from reducing populations of resistant weeds or in minimizing herbicide costs and related environmental effects, Newman says.
As new sensing technologies evolve, Newman points out, the SwarmFarm platform could be adaptable for field scouting, insect management and precision nutrient applications, among other things.