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Robots could help fill agriculture worker shortage, but internet coverage needs to improve

Imagine being able to spray a paddock with the touch of a button, or being on holiday and knowing exactly how your cattle are performing.

Automation on farm is bringing with it the promise of hands-free farming and it could help ease agriculture’s dire workforce shortages.

Food Agility CRC chief scientist David Lamb said hands-free or autonomous farming could be part of the solution to the labor crisis, but it was about replacing tasks – not jobs.

“There’s a lot of time spent doing tasks that could otherwise be replaced by machines,” Professor Lamb said.

A high stack of hay bales in a paddock
A Food Agility project is looking at using new technology to monitor the risk of hay bale fires.(ABC Rural: Anna Vidot)

Professor Lamb said hands-free farming also involved remote data collection and monitoring, which could allow farmers to make more informed decisions on farm.

For example, a Food Agility CRC project is looking at processing data and using satellites to monitor the risk of hay bale fires, which can occur when the hay is too moist.

Connectivity an issue

However, there is one barrier that has held back the adoption of the technology – connectivity.

Many Australian farms struggle with consistent mobile and internet reception, but hands-free farming technology relies on the transfer of large amounts of data.

Corporate grain grower Lawson Grains has been an early adopter of autonomous technology.

Southern NSW regional manager Nick Ennis said they used autonomous tractors with weed-seeker booms, as well as drones to capture images for weed identification.

But connectivity was a challenge.

However, he believed the technology had the potential to make a significant difference to operations – when it worked.

For example, during a wet harvest, they needed to spray for weeds behind the harvester – a job requiring extra operators who were potentially already fatigued.

But an autonomous machine could follow the harvest crew along itself, removing the need for extra workers and reducing hours worked during a busy period.

A sprayer machine in a paddock.
Autonomous tractors with weed-seeker booms are one example of taking over menial tasks.(Supplied: Lawson Grains)

Director of Charles Sturt University’s Global Digital Farm Jonathan Medway said they had tackled the issue by installing on-farm wi-fi developed by Wagga Wagga startup Zetifi.

“They have technology that allows a farmer or a group of farmers to set up a network of local stations that can extend telephone and internet coverage across a large area,” Mr Medway said.

“It’s a solution for black spots.”

More robots could equal better jobs

The mining industry has been seen as a leader in autonomous vehicles.

But robotics technology lead at Oz Minerals Sue Kay said connectivity was just as much an issue in their industry.

“It’s an ongoing battle, communications in remote areas is not simple to fix,” Dr Kay said.

A large yellow autonomous truck at a minesite.
The mining industry has been a leader in autonomous machines, but also struggles with connectivity.(Supplied: Rio Tinto / Christian Sprogoe Photography)

However, Dr Kay was optimistic that continued innovation through satellite and quantum technology would solve the issue.

“The general trend is to improved connectivity. We’re still not there and I think there are inequities in terms of who is able to access that connectivity,” she said.

Dr Kay said, in mining and agriculture, robotics could attract more people to the industry as it opened new roles and removed some more menial tasks.

“It can often free people up from quite boring and repetitive work and allow them to take more roles that are not only higher quality but also more value-adding for the operation.”

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