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Bots on the ground – farming’s new army

The SwarmFarm team.
Photo: SwarmFarm

Key points

  • Lightweight robots reduce load on soils
  • Robot platforms can carry a range of technologies
  • Automation via robots reduces labour demand and boosts productivity

Frustration was the impetus for Andrew Bate to venture into the startup tech domain.

“I’m a grain grower and I was frustrated by the sheer size and weight of modern farming machinery and the damage it was doing to our soils – even with controlled-traffic farming,” Mr Bate says.

“I saw robotics as an opportunity to decouple productivity from machine size. Small, lightweight autonomous vehicles working in ‘fleets’ or ‘swarms’could farm our country better than large tractors and machinery.

“I was also excited toinvestigate new farming techniques, tools and machinery that could be enabled with robotics – things that would never work or be practical on the back of a tractor. I saw robotics as the ‘unlock code’ for the next wave of agtech and better farming systems.”

Automation also signified a solution to both labour shortages in regional areas and increased productivity, as robots can work around the clock.

SwarmFarm journey

There have been a lot of partnerships along the way for SwarmFarm.

“We started in 2010 with university partnerships but became somewhat frustrated with academic pursuits interfering with commercial outcomes,” Mr Bate says.

“Then in our early days we partnered with leading businesses which were interested in innovation in agriculture, including Westpac, Telstra, Elders, Adama and others, to support our early growth.”

Since then, SwarmFarm has been able to access support and grants from both the Queensland and federal governments, including the AusIndustry Entrepreneurs program and Ignite Ideas, and it continues to grow and attract investment.

Mr Bate says it is important to choose investors who match the company’s values and vision. “Our last investment round included Emmertech (a Canadian agtech fund), GRDC’s GrainInnovate, and the Australian investment fund Tenacious Ventures. All these funds have direct connections to grain farmers, which is super-important to us.”

About the bots

Mr Bate describes SwarmFarm as “integrated autonomy”.

“We build lightweight, autonomous robots and we partner with other innovative companies to integrate their cutting-edge technology onboard as tools and attachments.

“We are both a software and a hardware company and we build all of our own technology end-to-end in-house.”

SwarmFarm develops the software for autonomy, control systems for robots, and apps to operate robots. It sells direct to farmers and provides a field team to support use of its robots to end of life.

The company is also continuing to design and build prototypes of new robot concepts.

The company’s journey transforming this futuristic realm into farming today has, not surprisingly, met a few challenges along the way.

We started before Google had a driverless car program or you could buy a drone from Harvey Norman.

Mr Bate says. “Autonomy is deep technology, and we had to build everything from scratch – software, robots, the business model and support processes to service our customers in an entirely new market.”

SwarmFarm has led the way as one of the only companies in the world with robots now commercially available to growers. To do this, it had to introduce an entirely new concept to market and prove both the product and its market fit.

The company launched its first commercial robots in 2016 with a fleet of four that it used for contract weed spraying in Central Queensland.

“We now have 52 robots in the hands in Australian farmers and our customers have sprayed over 570,000 hectares with our bots. We are now expanding manufacturing capability and are on track to produce 150 robots in 2024.”

Integrating technology

The company has an app store and software package called SwarmConnect™ that makes it easy for other companies to integrate their technology onboard the autonomous robots.

“We currently have 10 companies that have released products through SwarmConnect™ that have been designed specially to integrate onboard our robots. These include sprayers up to 24 metres wide with 3500-litre tanks, green-on-brown weed detection, green-on-green weed detection, mowers and slashers.”

The robots are also fitted with weather stations that can direct the robots to start and stop spraying according to the weather conditions. Mr Bate’s team is also looking at integrating chemical-free weeding technology on the robots.

SwarmFarm robots

SwarmFarm robots with spraying and slashing equipment. Photo: SwarmFarm

Case Study: Bots deliver multiple benefits

Summer and winter cropping at North Star in northern New South Wales can create a constant annual workload for Simon Doolan, who farms in partnership with his wife Sandy.

“We have four to five full-time staff and are always looking for ways to farm smarter,” Simon says.

The Doolans were early adopters of GPS and autosteer technology some 20 years ago, and it is these sorts of innovations that are important in reducing waste in cropping operations.

“Reducing overlap and using variable-rate application are important cost savings, especially when input costs keep rising.”

As it has also become challenging to source farm labour, 18 months ago Simon leased a robot from SwarmFarm.

Dubbed Lima2, it has been deployed in the weed management program trailing an 18-metre Hayes boomspray.

“Without a doubt, we are now getting better weed control and saving labour,” Simon says.

We are using less chemical and the unit has a lighter footprint, reducing compaction. The robot also has a precise turning circle, which further reduces compaction.

“And we find the apps SwarmFarm has developed to operate the bots very user-friendly.”

Simon says Lima2 is also equipped with weather instrumentation to ‘know’ when to stop if the weather is not conducive for spraying and when to resume. He says this reduces spray drift as well as increasing operational efficiency.

“Lima2 has freed-up our farm labour to do other work such as looking after areas prone to erosion, or activities that generate more income for the business.”

However, he says the bots do need a level of supervision and he has been servicing them when required.

“They are not set-and-forget, as they are new technology and we need to check their performance.”

He says it is great to work with and be supported by an innovative Australian company that has the interests of Australian growers at the heart of its business model. However, he says there are limitations as SwarmFarm does not have the business scale of a multinational.

“The (three-year) lease arrangement with SwarmFarm gives us flexibility as it provides the opportunity to upgrade the technology when improvements have been made.”

More information: Andrew Bate,, 0428 186371, SwarmFarm; Simon Doolan, , 0429 047 197

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