Ag Tech

Agrifood Summit hears tech aids safety, sustainability

Emma Alsop, June 6, 2022

Steve Saunders (Robotics Plus), Sue Keay (Oz Minerals), Nick Ennis (Lawson Grains), Professor David Lamb (Food Agility CRC) and Katie McRobert (Australian Farm Institute) discuss the future of hands-free farming.

TECHNOLOGY is key to the future of farming sustainability and shouldn’t be feared by growers and young people interested in starting a career in agriculture, according to Lawson Grains New South Wales general manager Nick Ennis,.

Speaking at the Digital Agrifood Summit at Wagga Wagga last week, Mr Ennis said that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics would become an everyday part of most broadacre cropping operations.

Mr Ennis was part of a panel discussion entitled The Road to Hands-Free Farming which also featured Food Agility CRC chief scientist David Lamb, Oz Minerals’ Sue Keay and Steve Saunders from Robotics Plus.

Mr Ennis, who manages one part of Lawson Grains operation which includes 10 grain properties in Western Australia and NSW, told the crowd these sorts of technology had been a part of the company’s farming practices for many years.

He said the company uses a range of tools, such as robotics, drones and camera sprayers, and partners with chemical, seed, fertiliser and machinery manufacturers and producers to undertake trial work in broadacre conditions.

He said one piece of technology, remote farming, has been available for croppers for many years and has been key in improving efficiencies in Lawson Grains’ operations.

“We have been doing that for a long time, even just on platforms like MyJohnDeere where we can actually control machines from a mobile phone,” Mr Ennis said.

“We can see where they are and we can track them any time of the day or night and that technology has been there for a long time; it’s just a matter of honing that.”

AI for staff wellbeing

Mr Ennis said fears that AI and robotics would cut employment opportunities was not a reality for his operations.

“A lot of these machines and robots or whatever it may be, it is not actually replacing people, it is replacing tasks.”

He said adopting these technologies was improving the safety and wellbeing of staff members.

“Something we are very mindful of in terms of safety is making sure people aren’t getting fatigued.

“A really good example of that is during the harvest operation where we could be working long hours.

“In a wet harvest, we would need to be operating spray rigs as well following on behind harvesters, and we just don’t have enough staff to be able to do it.

“So, if we can put an autonomous machine in the field following the harvest group, that takes a huge amount of work away from potentially already-starting-to-fatigue staff members.”

He said this new technology was removing some menial tasks, and offering high-quality opportunities for skilled young people to take up careers in agriculture.

“For younger people, we have a number of staff members and casual staff members who attend university…studying agriculture, who bring to our business a level of experience and passion for this sort of farming and robotics that is just inspiring.

“These guys will really take us into the future and will take people like me along for the ride; it’s pretty exciting.”

Environmental sustainability

Mr Ennis said robotic and AI technologies will be the future of creating financially and environmentally sustainable cropping operations.

He said with the cost of chemicals on the rise, targeting the application using robotic technology makes financial sense in the long term.

“When we talk about financial sustainability that ties into…the reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides and also fertilisers as well.

“We have been using variable-rate technology for a long period of time.”

As founder and CEO of New Zealand-based agtech company Robotics Plus, Steve Saunders said using technology that controlled chemical usage resulted in improved environmental outcomes, alongside financial savings.

“We are using a lot of smart technology around spray applications, reducing chemicals by 30-40 per cent by being able to target sprays…and that is feeding into a lot of our farmers’ challenges with getting to carbon-zero farming operation into the future,” Mr Saunders said.

“The reality is we need AI, we need these automations to be sustainable into the future.”

Mr Ennis said measuring and tracing carbon emissions and being able to provide this information to customers was another avenue where technology can increase the sustainability of a cropping operation.

“We can actually trace every step of the way of what we have produced for our carbon footprint and then we can say to an end user this is how we have got that grain to you.

“This technology also plays hand and hand with being able to access that easily and come up with a report with a click of a button is really exciting.”

Connectivity limitations

Mr Ennis said implementing new technologies has not been easy over the years, with connectivity issues creating roadblocks stopping the smooth integration of some systems.

“One of the biggest issues we have farming in regional and remote areas is absolutely connectivity.

“We have tried a lot of technology that has worked and failed, worked and failed because of connectivity.

“There are solutions to that which we are working with now.”

Physicist David Lamb, who was a keynote presenter at the forum, said connectivity continued to hold back the agritech sector.

He said an Australian Agritech expert working group reviewed this issue last year and identified a threshold where connectivity becomes an enabler of the industry as opposed to a drag on it.

“One of the criteria they looked at is when reliable connectivity across paddocks is sufficient to be able to use connected machinery and sensors…and the conclusion is and reality is that, so far in Australia, we are not consistently crossing that threshold,” Professor Lamb said.

“This is about connectivity in the paddock, where our hands-free farming future really matters.

“We have not crossed that threshold yet and it remains an enduring challenge for us all and it is still holding back, in some form or other, our progression in digital agrifood innovations.”


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