With the sheer amount of labor involved in things like inspecting crops, removing weeds and counting yields, it is perhaps no surprise that farmers are looking to automate certain tasks. And they may soon have a new tool at their disposal, with researchers in Australia developing a durable robot that can navigate difficult terrain, round up cattle and possibly even keep an eye on their health.
The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney has a bit of experience when it comes to agricultural robots. Headed by Professor Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, the team has been busy preparing for a future of automated farming in Australia by building machines that do things like patrol orchards and map and classify different crops.
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Its latest baby is called SwagBot and it is designed to take care of monitoring and interacting with crops and plants, along with animals roaming about the farm. The omni-directional, all-wheel drive electric robot is built to withstand rugged terrain and can even take trailers along for the ride. The team recently let SwagBot loose on a cattle farm where it towed a trailer, interacted with horses, rolled across fallen logs and powered through streams.
"So far SwagBot has only been remote controlled," Mark Calleija, a technical officer at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, explains to New Atlas. "Next steps will involve fitting various sensors and adding software on-board so SwagBot can do these tasks autonomously. After this we will look at environment interaction such as weeding."
This first field test also put SwagBot face to face with a herd of cows, where it slowly encroached on the animals' space and shuffled them off in the desired direction. While this herd dog-like behavior was also controlled remotely, the team hopes more data and advances in sensor technology will allow them to improve SwagBot's ability to control, and even assess the health of the animals and their environment, on its own.
"For example, we can determine the volume and gait of the cattle using vision, lasers etc." says Calleija. "We can determine the temperature using infrared etc. We may be able to detect the volume and health of pasture using vision, infrared and ranging sensors either on the ground or aerial robot."
The SwagBot team is currently one year into a three-year project, and will use upcoming field tests to further develop the machine's autonomy. You can see it do its thing in the video below.