Ladybirds are happily welcomed by gardeners into their yards, knowing that they will consume the most prolific plant pests like white flies, mites, and aphids. Imagine, then, how useful an autonomous, solar-powered, intelligent robotic ladybird could be on a farm. Enter the University of Sydney’s "Ladybird," not actually an eater of insect pests, but a robot capable of conducting mobile farm reconnaissance, mapping, classification, and detection of problems for a variety of different crops.

The Ladybird farm robot is the culmination of a lot of previous work from a research team lead by Professor Sukkarieh at Sydney University, committed to the development of farming robotics in such things as sensory technology, materials advances and complex autonomous mechanisms.

With all-wheel steering, the team claims that Ladybird is less disruptive to tilled soil and, with reduced drag, allows the electric drive motors to operate more efficiently and with lower power consumption. The steering is also able to turn each set of wheels in the same or the opposite direction, allowing the robot to compensate for uneven planting rows or other deviations. With a top seed of around 5 km/h (3 mph) and autonomous all-wheel independent control, the Ladybird can also spin around in its own length.

Ladybird's first outing to a real farm growing onion, beetroot and spinach in Cowra, New South Wales was deemed a success by the team, as it operated fully for three consecutive days after just one charge of its batteries prior to its release.

"The robot was able to drive fully autonomously up and down rows and from one row to the next, while gathering sensor data," said Professor Sukkarieh. "Sensors include lasers, cameras and hyper spectral cameras. Part of our research program is to find new ways to provide valuable information to growers about the state of their paddocks."

Future testing of the Ladybird will include using the manipulator arm carried under the robot that may be used for spot sensing or sampling and – perhaps sometime in the future – automated harvesting.

Awarded Researcher of the Year by the Australian Vegetable Industry body, Ausveg, for his work on intelligent agricultural robots, Professor Sukkarieh recently outlined his team's work on Ladybird in an address to the PMA Fresh Connections conference in Auckland, New Zealand.

The short video below shows a demonstration of the Ladybird prior to the field trial.