Invasion of the banana robots

Tuesday, 04 June, 2013

While robots on banana farms may sound like a sci-fi movie plot, a University of Sydney robotics expert says this could be a reality in Australia within 10 years.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies spoke about industry innovation at the Banana Industry Congress on the Sunshine Coast.

Professor Sukkarieh told growers there is significant untapped potential for the use of robots that work outdoors to provide information and support to banana farmers. While a few banana farms in northern Queensland are already using robotics in packing sheds, Professor Sukkarieh says potential exists for their use in harvesting, monitoring and other on-farm practices.

Within 10 years, he believes robotics could be making a significant contribution to the banana industry. “What is preventing it from happening sooner is the lack of funding to develop the technology,” Sukkarieh said.

“Efficiency can be improved and scalability, provided by autonomous harvesters, could be possible for banana plantations, and there are other robots that could be deployed for plant health monitoring, pruning and yield monitoring. All of these systems could benefit Australian banana farmers.”

And the costs won’t necessarily be prohibitive, Sukkarieh believes.

“Once the technology has been researched and prototypes developed, you would expect that a return on investment would be achieved within a couple of years. Beyond that you get savings in fuel, maintenance and labour, plus added benefits of gathering farm-wide information about the health and other aspects of your farm.”

Robots could be used in other types of farming, too.

“We have already done vegetation monitoring and classification by robotic aircraft and this can now be done by using ground robots. This has the potential to be used for assessing vegetation that is healthy. With higher-resolution sensors, robotics could also be utilised to detect pest varieties as well,” Sukkarieh added.

Robotic aircraft have already been tested for identifying backyard bananas as part of the National Bunchy Top Project which is fighting the banana plant disease Bunchy Top.

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