THE vegetable industry's association with robotics continues to become more intertwined with a weed and foreign objection detection bot being tested on a Queensland farm.
Trials of the robot, named RIPPA (Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application), were conducted on a Gatton property prior to the 2016 National Horticultural and Innovation Expo in July.
RIPPA has the ability to collect data using sensors that can map an area of a crop and detect weeds as well as highlight foreign objects.
The University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics director of innovation and research Professor Salah Sukkarieh said the device can also use this data to estimate yield and fertilise crops.
RIPPA was developed six months ago and for the first time was trialled outside New South Wales so it could experience new soil and crop types.
Professor Sukkarieh said the robot has a collection of sensors and sophisticated algorithms that can detect weeds from amongst the crop as well as foreign objects such as a stone, glass or metal.
The next step is to build systems that can remove the weed and the foreign object.
Horticulture Innovation Australia (HIA) commissioned RIPPA using industry funds and matched funding from the Australian Government.
HIA research and development lead Dr Anthony Kachenko said food safety is a huge priority for growers and the whole supply chain.
“RIPPA gives us an insight into a future not too far away where growers can have increased assurance that no foreign matter has slipped through the cracks," Dr Kachenko said.
"Currently there is only so much that can be detected with the human eye, and the results can be devastating.
“It’s also great to be watching the capacity of this farmbot steadily increase. At the moment it can estimate yield, spray weeds and fertiliser, and it can run up to 21 hours straight.
“It’s exciting to think that such robots could be available to growers in Australia in about five years’ time.”
The 250 kilogram solar-powered robot spent three hours moving up and down vegetable growing rows, conveying extensive data live to the laptop of Sydney university researchers.
Rugby Farm co-owner Dan Hood said when offered the opportunity to trial the machinery on his farm which produces 14,000 acres of vegetables a year, he jumped at the chance.
“We are very keen to see new technologies come online that make the business of producing vegetables easier,” he said.
“Managing weeds can be a difficult and time consuming activity, and if not controlled can be detrimental to both the yield and quality of our crops.
"Weeds can be removed by hand, chipping hoe, mechanical scuffling or by sprays. All are expensive and we are struggling to find people with the skills and the perseverance to do this type of work.
"We are hoping RIPPA will provide a cost effective solution to this challenging problem.
“An autonomous system that has the capacity to do all this 24-hours-a-day could save money and improve accuracy – and we are extremely excited to be part of this trial.”