Image: University of Sydney
So it looks like we're going to live to see the rise of the autonomous robot farmer after all. Or at least, the robot farmhand. There are plenty of promising agricultural automatons in the works, after all: We've got mechanized hydroponic factory farmers, self-propelling farmballs, and, now, solar-powered robots that collect data, pick weeds, and someday, harvest crops.
That latest entrant is the Ladybird, the product of a $1 million research project helmed by the University of Sydney. Named as such because it sort of resembles a mechanical ladybug, it's covered by an arch of solar photovoltaics and is designed to both monitor and help cultivate vegetable crops. It's laser-guided and self-driving, and for now, it's primary mission is gathering data about the farm it tirelessly drives across.
"Ladybird focuses on broad acre agriculture and is solar-electric powered. It has an array of sensors for detecting vegetable growth and pest species, either plant or animal," Professor Salah Sukkarieh, one of the bots' chief developers, said in a statement. "She also has a robotic arm for the purposes of removing weeds as well as the potential for autonomous harvesting."
Sukkarieh was awarded the 'Researcher of the Year' accolade by the Australian Vegetable Industry, which is apparently more excited at the prospect of getting some automated help than it is afraid the bot will take its jobs. In the dystopian-looking days ahead, when climate change has raised temperatures and brought less rainfall to arid-leaning regions, farmers will need all the help they can get to squeeze as much produce as possible out of increasingly less productive land.
Image: University of Sydney
Australia in particular is facing more regular drought and epic heat, as it did just earlier this year. The University of Sydney explains that "the automation of on-farm processes is poised to play a decisive role in minimising input and maximising output of future agriculture. Automation can help to increase efficiency and yield, by having many of the manual tasks of farming performed by specially designed agricultural robotic devices."
The Ladybird robot just successfully completed a three-day test on a farm that grows spinach, onions, and beetroot in Australia.
"The robot was able to drive fully autonomously up and down rows and from one row to the next, while gathering sensor data," Sukkarieh said. "Sensors include lasers, cameras and hyper spectral cameras." Unlike its robot farmhand brethren, the Ladybird is perhaps the unit most poised to take over a wide array of crucial farming tasks, from pulling weeds to monitoring crop health to actually harvesting the produce.
ABC Australia interviewed Ed Fagan, the owner of the farm where Ladybird completed its trial, and he was enthusiastic at the results:
The vegetable grower says that the Ladybird robot's intelligence gathering around pests and crop nutrition will be invaluable for farmers,
"A lot of the time in horticulture, if you're short of an element in the plant, by the time you see a symptom it's too late, they will be able to pick up a nutrient deficiency before we see any symptoms.
"Secondly, you can use it at night at 2 o'clock in the morning and go out and do an insect survey, so things like cutworm popping out at night time, slugs, worms, things like that."
So, the Ladybird has passed its first round of tests with flying colors, and it's garnering acclaim from farmers themselves. The remaining questions primarily concern its cost, durability, and ultimate efficacy: Will Ladybird's data maps and analytic predictions improve efficiency or prevent the loss of enough crops to cover the cost of the robot, and any maintenance it will inevitably need? Just how much can it improve yields?
If it proves affordable and can survive the elements, there may be a day in the not-too-distant future when you can spot robotic ladybirds buzzing through croplands, doing their autonomous damnedest to help feed the nine billion people that will soon populate the planet.