A farm vehicle moves through a paddock towing an implement.

Australian farmers invest in robots and autonomous vehicles to combat labor shortages

Robots are being used to commercially cultivate more than 405,000 hectares of Australian farmland, and farmers see it as the answer to a workforce shortage.

The Bundaberg region, located about 400 kilometers north of Brisbane, is known as Australia’s bowl-fruit capital and produces a quarter of the country’s fresh produce.

Farmers there are investing in autonomous vehicles that can be programmed to reduce herbicide spraying more efficiently.

Theonis Smit, an agronomist with the Macadamia Farm Department, said his workplace was one of the first to bring in self-driving vehicles.

“We’ve been running prototyping for a long time,” Smit said.

Labor shortages and harsh weather conditions have accelerated the company’s investment in vehicles in recent months.

A driverless tractor works on the Bundaberg macadamia farm.(Supplied: Dean Collins)

“It’s a question that the reliability of the machines far outweighs the reliability of the people,” Smit said.

“They’re on 24/7 and just need a little bit of fuel now and then, and a little bit of reception.”

What he said would be the future of Australian agriculture.

“I think in another three to four years we will see more of these things in the orchard than we are seeing today.”

A man in a hello shirt stands in an orchard.
Autonomous vehicles have proven useful, says Theonis Smit.(ABC Wide Bay: Joanna Marie)

Farming is smarter, not harder

Swarm Farm robots were founded by Andrew Patty in central Queensland in 2012 with the aim of creating better farming systems.

He said that self-driving cars are becoming prevalent.

“Most of these machines are very versatile,” he said.

“In June of this year, we penetrated 1 million acres [405,000 hectares] They are grown commercially in Australia with our robots, which is a huge milestone for our team that we are really proud of.”

Robot swarm farm
Robots can be programmed to apply pesticides more efficiently and safely on farms.(Supplied: Swarm Farm Robots)

He said the robots can do simple jobs like chemical handling, spraying and mowing.

“There are a lot of our bots in Queensland and New South Wales, and we are sending the bots to Western Australia,” he said.

The company makes robots that can be operated via a mobile application.

Mr. Bate said there are environmental benefits in using the machines.

“We cut about 580 tons of pesticides from the environment here in Australia last year, across the fleet of all our customers,” he said.

A man stands in a grazing field in front of a tractor near another machine.
Andrew Bate says machines are better for the environment.(ABC Wide Bay: Joanna Marie)

“On our farm, we’ve probably cut about 15 tons of pesticides in the last 12 months alone.”

Communication is the biggest challenge for farmers wanting to invest in machinery.

“One of our biggest limitations to not just this technology, but all technologies is connectivity,” Smit said.

“The farm we are on today is one of the only farms we can choose because it has 4G reception.”

More jobs, not less

Dean Collins of CQUniversity’s Hinkler AgTech Initiative said that while robotic vehicles will replace workers in the field, there will be other jobs being created in support roles.

“Ultimately, we also need service industries, we need people to support these vehicles,” he said.

“We need people who can figure out how to fix it, how to maintain it as well, and how to actually operate it.”

Mr. Baty said that technology will attract more young people to the agricultural industry.

“There is really a huge bright future in agriculture in terms of new technology and new opportunities,” he said.

“It’s the kind of technology that engages the next generation and gets people back into agriculture.”

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