Automating agribusiness


27th April, 2018

Automation in agriculture will mean more robots in our fields

Now that a hectare of barley can be sown, grown and harvested without manual input, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the future of farming?’.

Earlier this year, news hit the media about an experiment to plant, grow and harvest a one-hectare paddock with no human hands involved.

The Hands Free Hectare project saw a crop of barley managed from seed to harvest by using drones, GPS-steered tractors, chaser bins and small rovers that collected sampling for testing.

The project’s proponents say this pilot could be scaled up for commercial use. But local experts say it’ll be a while before we see widespread robot activity on Australian farms.

Professor Wendy Umberger is Executive Director at the Centre for Global Food & Resources at The University of Adelaide. She told The Pulse that broad-acre farming in Australia won’t be fully automated anytime soon.

“The Hands Free Hectare’s a nice idea in terms of testing whether we can completely mechanise or take people completely out of production. The results show that yes, it’s possible.”

“But the more important thing to consider is what the utility is for farmers.” Professor Umberger said.

Does automation in farming reduce labour costs?

The Hands Free Hectare shows that automation can be introduced cost-effectively with broad-acre farming, reducing the labour costs involved. But as Professor Umberger pointed out, labour isn’t the biggest cost for this type of agriculture.

“When it comes to farming most broad-acre crops, such as grains, the labour costs for Australian farmers is already relatively low,” she said. “Yes, there’s a farmer involved in the planting and harvesting, but broad-acre farming is more capital intensive than labour intensive – assuming the farmers own or lease the machinery already.

“To try and convince them to change their machinery and automate those few remaining manual processes would be seen as too costly.”

To automate agriculture, tech companies may be better off developing systems for other types of farming where labour costs are still high. Or where tech brings other benefits.

Sustainability, food safety and enhanced quality

Broad-acre farming may be cost-effective when it comes to human power. But there are plenty of other agricultural practices that rely on lots of elbow grease.

Fruit orchards, vineyards and livestock management require significant manual work. It’s these areas that future innovations may shake up the way Australian farmers operate.

And according to Professor Umberger, the benefits may go beyond improved cost efficiencies.

“There’s huge interest in automation in agriculture where it can decrease costs and lower input use, but there may be other benefits that reduce the environmental impact, reduce food safety risks and improve quality,” she said.

“If robots in an orchard can be made to pick at the right time in terms of ripeness while reducing the incidence of bruising, we’ll end up with a better product in the market that doesn’t carry the same risk of contamination.”

So, fewer human pickers and packers on Australian orchards. This could mean agronomists reduce how much contaminated fruit arrives on the market. The recent outbreak of listeria carried by rockmelon is a clear reminder of this risk – it caused multiple hospitalisations and six fatalities across Victoria and New South Wales. Whether the contamination was spread by workers or another vector is still unknown.

But to ensure new technologies are successful, developers need to work closely with all stakeholders in agriculture to know their tech meets the market’s needs.

Keeping Australian agribusiness competitive

The benefits of automation need to match the farmer’s needs and improve product quality for consumers. They are to be introduced in a way that ensures Australian producers are globally competitive.

If a new technology doesn’t have broad-based support, then it’s unlikely to be adopted, said Professor Umberger.

“Unfortunately, adoption rates for new technology tends to be pretty low among Australia’s farmers. If a new system or machine costs a lot and doesn’t guarantee demonstrable, significant benefits, they just won’t accept it.”

“The only exception to this is when the government or the buyer enters the equation and demands the adoption of the technology.”

In some cases, expensive systems are affordable only for the largest farming businesses and leaving Australia’s smaller farmers out, which damages industry competition.

“We also need to consider how new technology helps us compete as a sector on the international market,” Professor Umberger said. “If it’s too expensive for any one party to adopt, maybe there’s a case that multiple partners within the sector should work together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.”

So, while we may not be witnessing the arrival of fully-automated farming just yet, it’s clear there’s plenty of room for further innovation on Australian farms. Huge opportunities await for those who can create new, market-leading solutions.