Innovative Agricultural Robots Inspiring Students and Helping Farmers

3 Jul 2019

Following a pilot launch in October 2018 that saw Digital Farmhand robots introduced to high schools in Orange, Dubbo and Junee, the $1.3 million Ag Robotics STEM Program is now being rolled out across NSW.

The two-year program will ultimately deliver robots to 20 regional schools across 10 Local Land Service regions. The next schools to receive robots include The Armidale School and Gulgong High School.

The Program, funded by the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer (OCSE), was designed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at The University of Sydney, under the guidance of Professor Salah Sukkarieh.

“Initially, the Program was designed to show high school students in regional NSW that, in addition to being exciting devices to code and control, agricultural robots can make a real difference to the rural environments in which they live,” Professor Sukkarieh said. “By helping to bridge the digital knowledge divide between the city and the bush, our hope is that many of these students will go on to choose careers in agricultural science or other STEM-related fields and end up applying their skills to regional communities in NSW.”

Students at Junee High School meeting the Digital Farmhand robot for the first time in October 2018.

While previously students spent a term learning coding and then applied this knowledge to controlling the robots, the Program is now coordinated with another OCSE-funded initiative, the Premier’s Coding Challenge (PCC), which also debuted last year. The PCC saw students in 50 NSW schools undertake a number of coding challenges, working with a ThinkerShield coding kit specially developed by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

“To maximise student benefit, we’ve made it a prerequisite that all students participating in the Ag Robotics STEM Program have completed the Premier’s Coding Challenge and achieved Diamond level competency,” Professor Sukkarieh said. “This will result in an intermediate level of coding knowledge and ensure that students derive full benefit from the robotics sessions.”

The Program is also introducing the surrounding agricultural community to the benefits of this technology. On days when the robots are not required at the school, local small landhold farmers are given demonstrations of its capabilities, which include monitoring row and tree crops, watering crops and identifying and eradicating weeds.

The commercial potential of the Digital Farmhand and its bigger brother, the Swagbot, which can also assist in herding cattle and monitoring animal health, has seen the creation of a startup company, Agerris, which recently received $6.5 million from Uniseed and venture-capital firms BridgeLane Group and Carthona Capital, with Professor Sukkarieh assuming the role of CEO.

Agerris will continue to develop both systems, with the aim of entering the Australian market within the year. South-East Asia and South Pacific island nations are early potential international markets. The Ag Robotics STEM Program will remain an integral part of the company’s operations.

“Traditional farming is labour-intensive and the reality is that in many communities, the next generation is not choosing this way of life. This Program is one way we’re trying to rekindle their enthusiasm for life on the land. Through the exciting advances in sensor technology and farming automation that we’re developing, we’re also delivering platforms that will give farmers precision tools to help them maximise yields and crop efficiencies in a time of climate uncertainty,” Professor Sukkarieh said.

“This is a terrific example of great research being translated into powerful outcomes. The Ag Robotic STEM Program is an important way to ensure that we engage the next generation of potential scientists. Equally importantly, the commercialisation of this technology through Agerris will deliver smart, cost-effective solutions to the challenges faced by our agriculture sector,” NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte said.

UPCOMING EVENT

Professor Sukkarieh will present his research and conduct a demonstration of the Digital Farmhand robot at ‘Science at the Local’ in Springwood on Sunday, 4 August 2019, from 2.30-4pm. NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte will also be in attendance, officially opening 2019 NSW Science Week and discussing how the NSW government supports science.

Event tickets are available here.