A robot to watch over your vegetables

Designed Down Under, this is the latest advance in automated crop management.

State-of-the-art technology – GPS-controlled combine harvesters, drones that monitor crops, and remote controlled centre pivot irrigation systems – is appearing on more and more farms. Now, what about a ‘farm robot’? University of Sydney robotics expert Prof Salah Sukkarieh has been named Researcher of the Year by Ausveg, which represents Australia’s vegetable producers. This was to honour Sukkarieh’s work on farm robots in general and the Ladybird in particular.

What it is
The Ladybird “is a completely new approach to agriculture robotics”, says Sukkarieh. The aim is not simply to automate tasks such as spraying, weeding and harvesting, but to provide a system that can provide “continuous information about the state of the farm, such as the health of crops and soil and appropriate timing for other crop activities such as when and what to harvest”.

The Ladybird is a solar electric-powered vehicle (the red shell covered with solar panels gives it its name). It can move in any direction – each of the four wheels can turn independently.

What it does
The unit is equipped with sensors and cameras that can provide important plant health information, as well as a robotic arm. The latter can selectively spray weeds by delivering tiny amounts of herbicide exactly where needed. New South Wales farmer Ed Fagan points out that by the time producers pick up a nutrient deficiency in a plant it is often too late to do anything about it.

The Ladybird, on the other hand, “can inspect your plants at night, detecting plant deficiencies and parasites, allowing you to take action the following day”. See the following videos on the construction and operation of the Ladybird: bit.ly/ladybirdrobot and bit.ly/ladybirdspray.

Sources: sydney.edu.au/engineering/alumni/ignite/ignite-magazine-november2014.pdf/; youtube: Australian centre for field robotics; www.seriouswonder.com; techxplore.com.