Farmers gear towards robots



WITHOUT question, the most notable advance in agricultural machinery in 2013, centred on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

Linked to arguably world-breaking advances in software technology, the initial trial work, principally by the Mingenew Irwin Group (MIG), has set the stage for UAVs to play a pivotal role in broadacre farming throughout Australia.

MIG executive member Darrin Lee became the first farmer in Australia to adopt UAV technology for his cropping program, incorporating a new computer software program he describes as the next quantum step in precision agriculture.

According to Darrin, using UAVs, farmers will initially have a tool to employ to reveal real-time nutrient status of crops, weed and insect populations in paddocks, germination status and sub-soil moisture availability.

All the information will be GPS referenced which means, for example, telematics can be employed to transfer data from a UAV, flying as low as five metres (17ft), to a controller in a tractor or SP sprayer, so an operator effectively has a spot-sprayer at his disposal, with two centimetre (sub inch) accuracy.

Future models, already on the drawing boards, will carry chemical tanks for GPS-controlled spraying or a range of cameras and computer controllers for improved quality mapping or spectral subsoil imagery, alleviating the need for a ground sled to collect information.

Darrin already is well along the track in setting up his 6500ha property – on which he crops 4200ha while running 5000 sheep – having put his hand up as a guinea pig to employ UAV technology.

“I’m collecting and collating farm data back to 1998,” he said. “Along with ground-truthing data, it will be used in a new software program which will interface with the UAV data we collect.”

“The new program will provide me with a range of historical, real-time and pre-emptive information on which I can make more accurate and cost effective management decisions.

“The UAV’s potential uses on my farm are mind-blowing and it is self-evident that having a tool that can fly over your property to gather precise information takes my time management to a new level.

“That was probably the biggest incentive to get involved because it has freed up my time to be more analytical with the almost seamless and timely information at my fingertips.”

Another pleasing development for farmers in 2013 was the completion of so-called Tier 4 engine development to meet strict international emissions standards.

Manufacturers rolled out new tractors, combine harvesters and self-propelled sprayers, all boasting new engine technology designed to save fuel while providing more power – high horsepower 4WD tractors are now heading towards power ratings of 522kW (700hp), linked to step-less transmissions operated by sophisticated engine management systems.

Apart from engine advances, computer technology was employed to provide more real-time data collection for farmers to interface with machinery multiples, such as the ability of a lead header to “talk” with and steer following headers in a paddock.

This telematics technology is the pre-cursor to so-called robotic farming, with driverless vehicles.

European manufacturer CLAAS revealed part of its research and development program at the 2013 Agritechnica Show in Hanover, Germany where it picked up seven medals – one gold and six silver – for innovation in agricultural technology.

Its gold medal was awarded for the company’s driving simulator, which provides online training in the operation of the company’s advanced technology in harvesting, hay equipment and tractors.

This is seen as a critical component in the advance of technology as service providers struggle to provide adequate technical support to farmers.

Tracked harvesters were also flagged by manufacturers as the way of the future, particularly as Australian farmers adopt controlled traffic farming (CTF) systems.

The jury is still out in this country on the merits of tracks but manufacturers, in their wisdom, believe it’s the right pathway.

Controlled traffic is gaining more traction, excuse the pun, in WA.