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The new age of automation

Highlights
  • Australian technology has produced the world’s largest field robots that already operate at ports and on mine sites around the country.
  • Mine robotics has advanced to the point where robots can communicate with each other in order to complete a task.
  • Agriculture will be the next industry affected by advances in field robotics.
  • Field robots will not only lift productivity but also gather data which will help improve agricultural practices.

Some of the world’s biggest robots, developed in Australia, are being used by mining and transport companies to boost efficiently and reduce costs.

Arguably one of the largest robots in the world, the Patrick Brisband Autostrad Terminal, operates across a 39 hectare site at the Port of Brisbane. Since it began operations in 2009, the Autostrad has improved the safety and productivity of the site, and similar systems are being planned for Port Botany in Sydney.

Meanwhile, massive longwall robots which are extensively used in coal mining, have been automated thanks to technology developed in Australia by the CSIRO. As a result giant robots running on Australian technology are now being used in coal mines all over the world.

The new age of automation

In fact mine automation technology developed and tested at Australian mine sites is now so highly developed that robotic vehicles, carriers and longwalls now interact with each other to complete tasks with a minimum of human intervention. This has made it possible to access resources without placing staff in dangerous and uncomfortable locations.

Automating large machinery offers a number of productivity and safety benefits across different industries. Automated movement is smoother than manual manipulation, which results in less wear and tear, and a reduction in fuel costs. Automation has also provided the opportunity for engineers and mine staff to operate remotely. On the productivity front, large automated harvesting equipment is able to operate around the clock, making it possible for farmers to work through the evening and bring their crops in more quickly.

The next generation of field robots

The next phase of development, according to Salah Sukkareih, director of research and innovation for the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, is in the area of agriculture.

“We are looking at developing robots that can work on broad acre farms, as well as tree robots which can harvest fruit together,” Sukkareih says. “We’re not just talking about single standalone robots anymore, we’re talking about developing multiple robots which can share in the harvesting, or heard cows into the milking shed.”

Robots on mine sites already feature a series of technologies which enable them to detect the presence of other vehicles or people, however Sukkareih believes robots will soon be able to do a lot more when it comes to modifying their environment.

To operate in constantly changing environments, the robots have to rapidly collect and process vast amounts of data, covering everything from air temperature through to the ripeness of fruit.

Testing agricultural robots in the field

A third generation apple farmer, Kevin Sanders, has opened his family farm up to a pair of harvesting robots he says look a little like the Dalek robots from the Dr Who series. While the robots are only in an early test phase, Sanders says he hopes the technology will one day help him reduce costs and boost the productivity of his 41 hectare farm.

“At this stage the robots are being set specific reconnaissance tasks, like counting the number of flowers on the trees, so we know how many apples are likely to set, and recognising where the fruit is on the trees and how ripe it is,” says Sanders. “Before they can pick the fruit they need to be able to ‘read the tree’, and that’s what we’re teaching them.”

According to Sanders, the attraction of field robotics is two fold. On the one hand it will reduce the number of pickers the farm needs to employ each year, and make it possible to pick throughout the day and night. However, he also believes the robotic sensors will make it easier to capture and analyse data about the farm, building up a database of information which can then be used to improve farming practices.

“We’ve been cultivating apples and pears for thousands of years, but we still don’t know very much about the process,” Sanders says. “Apple growing, like all agriculture, is a very risky business, and robots and the information they collect will make it just a little bit easier to protect our crops and our businesses.”

How field robots sense the environment

The sensors carried by the robots will continuously collect data from the trees and surrounding environment. Some of this data will need to be immediately analysed and integrated into the robots’ movements and responses, such as data pertaining to the ripeness of the fruit, or obstacles which might lie in the robot’s path. Significant opportunities also present themselves when these data streams are brought together and analysed.

“This is just the starting point, and it is vitally important that we become first movers in this field,” says Sanders. “We’ll get to the point where a combination of the robots themselves and the data they are gathering will have a significant impact on productivity in the agricultural sector, and that will make us more competitive with other countries all over the world.”

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