Horticultural robot operates like a technological agronomist

FUTURE FARMING: Engineer Vsevolod Vlaskine, research fellow Zhe Xu, engineer Justin Clarke and science communication consultant Carl Larsen with RIPPA at TAPG expo, Deloraine. Picture: Phillip Biggs

FUTURE FARMING: Engineer Vsevolod Vlaskine, research fellow Zhe Xu, engineer Justin Clarke and science communication consultant Carl Larsen with RIPPA at TAPG expo, Deloraine. Picture: Phillip Biggs

A snapshot into agriculture's future was unveiled at Deloraine, as a horticultural robot RIPPA was put through its paces for the TPAG expo today.

RIPPA, which stands for Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application, has been developed to look after crop health and growth at the plant level.

This robot is a joint project between Horticulture Innovation Australia, the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, RMCG and TechMac.

Project research fellow Dr Zhe Xu and his team mapped the Deloraine trial site via GPS and then demonstrated the robot’s capabilities in moving up and down crop rows checking soil and weeding around plants at the TAPG Precision Agriculture Expo.

The fully-automated solar-powered robot can detect anomalies in plants and soil and send data back to an iPad or Andoid device.

“This covers right to plant level including irrigation, getting the soil right and communicating those outcomes later on,” Dr Xu said.

RIPPA checks for diseased plants, weeds and uses a soil probe for to detect foreign objects, such as pests, mice, glass or metal.

RMCG science communication consultant Carl Larsen said the original driver for the project was the cost of labour and supply in Australian horticulture.

“Our target audience is the top 20-25 per cent of vegetable growers in the country,” Mr Larsen said.

“It's really exciting; it's like the iPad for agriculture” he said.

RIPPA is being trialled at sites along the East Coast of Australia, including Harvest Moon at Forth.

“We're collecting data on lettuce, broccoli and baby leaf spinach and will extend that to growers and end users,” Mr Larsen said.

Technology is not new to farming, but this robotic system takes technology right to the plant level, which Mr Larsen said was a point of difference against drones.

“The difference with this machine is that it's smaller. With soil health and production the per plant management and interaction is a real added advantage,” he said.

“A drone is per row and paddock. That crop interaction can't happen from a drone. From a crop yield perspective it's really valuable information. It's like a technological agronomist.

“We can find out what the plant is telling us. From a quality assurance perspective that's challenging, particularly for baby leaf crops,” Mr Larsen said.

As well as developing the robot demonstrated at the expo at Rotary Pavilion, Dr Xu said the team was looking at varied payloads, such as a trailer or on the back of another system, to see how it could be best adapted in different farming situations.

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