Australian Centre for Field Robotics

Professor Salah Sukkarieh with one of his robots

Professor Salah Sukkarieh

Based at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics is one of the largest robotics research institutes in the world. It is dedicated to the scientific advancement of autonomous and intelligent robots for outdoor environments. Professor Sukkarieh and his colleagues are developing a wide range of automation applications for multi-billion dollar industries such as agriculture, stevedoring, mining, aerospace and defence.

A recent project is set to innovate farming sector processes and maximise Australia’s potential to become the food bowl of Asia. By using robotic devices to assess, maintain and ultimately harvest crops, Australia’s agricultural industry can look forward to increased efficiency and higher yields of fresh produce.

With the support of Horticulture Australia, Professor Sukkarieh’s team have developed robotic systems, sensors and intelligent devices. When trialled on a farm in Mildura, the devices were able to move through an orchard gathering data to develop a comprehensive in-ground and out-of-ground model of the environment.

“Traditionally it has been necessary for someone to actually walk through the orchard, taking and analysing soil and other samples and making decisions on the health and yield quality of the plants,” said Professor Sukkarieh. “The devices we’ve developed can collect, analyse and present this information in greater detail and over the whole farm, giving the farmer more accurate data to help them better manage crop yields.”

The second stage of the project involves applying this technology to standard farm tractors. As well as being able to perceive and analyse their environment, the machines will be able to perform tasks such as applying fertilisers and pesticides, watering, sweeping and mowing.

The third and most complex stage of the project is to enable automated harvesting. “The devices we’ve developed can already identify each individual fruit on the tree and its degree of ripeness, which is about 80 percent of the job done – but being able to harvest them is our ultimate goal,” said Professor Sukkarieh.

The team is also working with farmers to determine how small changes to traditional agricultural practices can allow farmers to make the most of this new technology. Professor Sukkarieh expects the devices to be commercially available to farmers within the next couple of years.

“I’m passionate about developing this kind of high-end technology and supporting its adoption, because it has a significant and immediate impact on industry and the wider community.

“There is significant interest in the agricultural community about the applications of robotics, which is really encouraging. As project leader I’ve been invited to address several grower conferences for various fruit and nut industry bodies about the implications of this technology to the future of farming,” said Professor Sukkarieh.

The most important factor in ACFR’s success, according to Professor Sukkarieh, is being able to operate within the context of a community willing to get on board and support the work. “We are fortunate to have companies and donors willing to take up the challenge, invest in our projects and see them through to completion.”