Bots can help fill shortages of agricultural workers, but internet coverage needs improvement

Imagine being able to spray a paddock at the touch of a button, or being on vacation and knowing exactly how your livestock are doing.

On-farm automation brings with it the promise of hands-free farming and can help alleviate acute workforce shortages in agriculture.

Food Agility CRC chief scientist David Lamb said hands-free farming could be part of the solution to the labor crisis, but it’s about replacing tasks – not jobs.

“There is a lot of time we spend doing tasks that could have been replaced by machines,” Professor Lamb said.

A tall pile of hay bales in a soil field
The Food Agility project is looking into the use of a new technology to monitor the risks of straw straw fires.(ABC Rural: Anna Fedot)

Professor Lamb said that hands-free farming also includes remote data collection and monitoring, which could allow farmers to make more informed decisions on the farm.

For example, the Food Agility CRC project is looking at data processing and the use of satellites to monitor the risks of straw fires, which can occur when the hay is too wet.

Contact problem

However, there is one barrier that has hampered the adoption of the technology – connectivity.

Many Australian farms struggle with stable mobile phone and internet reception, but hands-free farming technology relies on transmitting large amounts of data.

A grain grower, Lawson Grains, was an early adopter of independent technology.

They have used autonomous tractors equipped with weed-finding arms, as well as photo-taking drones to identify weeds, regional director for Southern New South Wales, Nick Innes, said.

But communication was a challenge.

However, he believed that technology has the potential to make a huge difference in operations – when it works.

For example, during wet harvesting, they needed to spray the weeds behind the harvester – a job that required additional workers that would probably already be stressful.

But the autonomous machine can follow the harvest crew along itself, eliminating the need for additional workers and reducing working hours during a busy period.

Spray machine in a field.
One example of taking on menial tasks is our stand-alone dozers with weeding arms.(Supplied: Lawson Pills)

They addressed the problem by installing wi-fi on the farm developed by Wagga Wagga startup Zetifi, said Jonathan Midway, director of Charles Sturt University’s Global Digital Farm.

“They have technology that allows a farmer or a group of farmers to create a network of local stations that can extend phone and internet coverage across a large area,” Midway said.

“It’s a solution to black spots.”

More robots could mean better jobs

The mining industry is seen as a leader in the field of autonomous vehicles.

But the head of robotics technology at Oz Minerals Sue Kay said connectivity has been a problem in their industry.

“It’s a constant battle, communications in remote areas are not easy to repair,” said Dr. Kay.

Big yellow independent truck at a mine site.
The mining industry pioneered autonomous machines, but it also struggles with connectivity.(Supplied: Rio Tinto / Christian Sbrogo Photography)

However, Dr. Kay was optimistic that continued innovation through satellite and quantum technology would solve the problem.

“The general trend is to improve connectivity,” she said. “We still don’t exist and I think there are disparities in terms of who has access to that connectivity.”

In mining and agriculture, Dr. Kay said, robots can draw more people into the industry because it has opened up new roles and eliminated some menial tasks.

“It can free people often from boring and repetitive work and allow them to take on more roles that are not only of higher quality but also have more added value to the process.”