FUTURAMA FARMER: The role of robotics in futuristic farming
Published on 15 October 2020
TESTING YOUR METAL
Andrew and Jocie Bate’s robotic journey started back in 2012 when they took a stand against using larger and more complicated equipment for farming.
They had a clear vision to create better farming systems and unlock the promise of autonomous agriculture.
Using their own farming operations as a testbed, the Bate’s partnered with two universities to develop their first prototype – Agbot 1, an autonomous RTV. From there, SwarmFarm has produced robotic prototypes for commercial spraying, weed identification and control, slashing and turf mowing.
Jocie Bate says their technology is not about the robot, it is about how we are going to farm into the future.
“Autonomous technology is the next step change for agriculture, allowing new farming techniques and methods previously not considered possible or practical.
“Swarm Farming is a new paradigm for agriculture where swarms of small, nimble, autonomous platforms create new farming practices,” Jocie explains.
“People thought about robots with moving arms, flashing lights, computer screens and wires…we were actually building technology that's simpler than a current tractor”
Precision application of crop protection products greatly improves farm efficiencies.
Through individual weed treatment, farmers can significantly reduce the amount of herbicide used on farms, improving the sustainability and environmental impact of agriculture.
“SwarmFarm only makes small robots. There is engineering, software and safety reasons why we make small robots, but ultimately it is better for the soil because the robots are lighter and there is less soil impact,” Andrew says.
So how did Central Queensland farmers suddenly segway into robotics and automation in agriculture?
BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER
Andrew’s background is an agronomist (i.e. an expert in the science of soil management and crop production) and a farmer for more than 25 years.
He says SwarmFarm comes from a soil-up approach, rather than a technology-down methodology.
While they were successful farmers, they found themselves thinking about what was next in agriculture and where was farming headed? Andrew reveals SwarmFarm was born from that.
During the 2000s mining boom, the Bate’s struggled to find staff to work their farms. Following a business expansion, they needed more resources.
“We always had a good long-term team working on the farming operation, but we started buying bigger tractors. We bought bigger sprayers. We bought bigger planters and we were all about needing bigger machines so we could farm more country, with less people so we could do it more efficiently.
“We had gone from seven to 27 tonnes for a lot of our machinery, really quickly.
“We woke up one day and realised we've gone too far. The tractors we are using, the planners we are using are so much bigger than what we were using 10 years ago, they do not do as good a job as what we used to do.
“The bigger we went, the more we compromised our farming.
“We're on this mad thing about trying to save labour and reduce our costs and we kind of missed the point and our farming started to deteriorate,” Andrew recounts.
SwarmFarm was born from the idea that if they could go robotic, and go small, it could be possible to make machines were better suited to growing crops.
“We could create cropping and the farming systems for the future out of robotics, which is something that set us apart because most people have only thought about driverless tractors and automation in agriculture, which is all about labour saving.
“We were thinking about how can we grow crops better and how can robotics enable that? So that is where we came from,” Andrew explains.
Andrew reflects that when they started SwarmFarm, he and Jocie did not even know they were a ‘start-up’ because that terminology was not around at the time.
“We just said we are just going to do this because if we don't, we’re always going to wish we did."
“People said to me, “you will lose your shirt off your back…how are you going to do all this stuff? You're not a software engineer," and things like that.
“I spent a lot of time asking lots of questions and flew around wherever I could get to, to talk to people, lots of overseas calls and ended up forming partnerships with two universities.
“Back in 2011, you couldn't go and buy a drone on your way home from work. That was sci-fi stuff. There was no Google driverless car program. Uber did not exist. This was out-there technology in that day. The only place you saw the sort of robots that we did, was in the military,” Andrew recalls.
The Bate’s formed a partnership with two universities, received a grant to start them off and invested the proceeds of selling a house into university research program into robots.
Working with the universities for a couple of years, the pair learned how to build software teams, put together technology and agile development processes, which SwarmFarm grew out from.
By 2015, the university programs had finished, and Andrew and Jocie were able to start employing their own people. They have since grown their team to 17 people, all based on the farm.
INTELLECTUAL FARMING PROPERTY
Andrew admits navigating the Intellectual Property landscape was unfamiliar territory.
“We'd never done IP agreements and the next thing we had 70-page IP agreements on our desk, and we were trying to work out how the IP was going to work for us.
“We were thinking, we're going to write these big cheques out to match this grant that we're a part of and we didn’t know if we were ever going to see this again? What were we going to get out of it?
“So, it did take us a while to learn to step through that process. There were no incubator hubs in those days, other than the now defunct Pollenizer out of Sydney, but we are nowhere near Sydney, so it was extremely hard to find advice and how to step through that process. We spent a heap of money with lawyers trying to work out things.” Andrew reflects.
Jocie explains the commercialisation aspect of SwarmFarm was also challenging.
“The university could be pushing at one side and you're creating a technology that you don't even know where the market fit is, and you're trying to do these things upfront.
“Finding the balance between academic progression and something commercial that a start-up can work with, can always be a contentious point as well,” she cautions.
ALL ABOUT ALIGNMENT
Andrew admits one of their steepest learning curves was the need for alignment.
He says if businesses are seeking grants to help fund their venture, those grants need to be well aligned to what you want to do and your outcomes.
“I've seen people chasing grants and you can waste a lot of time and energy on that and they don't help you.
“If they're strategic, absolutely go for them, they could fit really well and they've been really, really helpful in our journey as well,” he advises.
For Jocie, the common language of ‘commercial’ and driving for the commercial outcome was a big learning.
“I think that's where having the actual team come up and be on site when we were working with the universities was really important because they'd come up and see how so much has changed.
“Of course, it is a farm…it is environmental, and it's the same when you get to any different paddock or any different industry.
“it’s also understanding IP has zero value until it actually can be applied to an industry. I remember having conversations where we were told to "Go and commercialise this."…our response was, "Well, it's research. It's not developed."
“We have this critical issue in our country where we talk about research and development, but all the focus is on research, which is publication new to science inventions, or discoveries.
“Development isn't something universities do because it's not something you can publish,” she says.
Andrew adds businesses like SwarmFarm must find the balance between research, development, and commercialisation, particularly when it comes to a new technology, market, start-up technology or pathway.
One of the biggest questions any start up must ask themselves is ‘how is what they are doing commercially applied and who is prepared to pay for it? Have you got a product customer fit, or have you got a product market fit?’
Andrew says there is a distinct difference between the two.
“We had enormous amount of interest in what we're doing. We have been in every kind of Ag newspaper and magazine. There is a lot of interest in robotics and in particular, swarm robotics, which are small, tiny little robots compared to large existing tractors that are out there working now.
It was totally different than what everyone was used to.
“We canvassed the idea because we didn't know how we were going to fund getting this all the way through to commercial, because millions of dollars were going to be required.
“We brought partners on board to help us with that, by pitching to people who might back us to help get this through the industry.
“We were also looking for sponsorships, people to sponsor us to help get this through, and in return for promotion of their company,” Andrew details.
Partnerships and sponsors enabled SwarmFarm to build more robots and build their team.
Talking to customers as a proof of concept, Andrew and Jocie were able generate farming income from their robots, prove they work, and obtain the feedback needed for future developments.
DO WHAT YOU DO
The Bate’s believe people enjoy their success story because they are genuine farmers doing interesting things in their farms, saying it is easy to talk about something if you genuinely love what you do and you're excited about everything you do.
“One of the things we're really proud about is we are literally one of the first companies worldwide that have genuine traction with real robots.
“Customers run our robots every day of the week, some of these are over a thousand kilometres away, running remotely,” Jocie says.
While it's easy to find a customer that loves what you do, the duo caution businesses must realise this needs to be on a scale across a market and warn against being misguided by getting the right fit for one customer, only to discover they’re one-off.
“At first our robots were smaller, and probably more lightweight than they are now, and they aligned more with our original view of how swarm farming was going to work as a new way of farming.
“From customer feedback and field experience, we learned that they had to be a little bit bigger and wider than they were.
“We had to change the way they operated, and it took us a while to get that right.
Rapid prototyping, really listening to their customers and understanding the difference between what a customer asked for and what they really need and not being blinded by your own vision are all lessons the Bate’s have learned in their journey.
They are especially proud of being a regional-based start-up, despite naysayers claiming they could only do what they hoped from a capital city.
“We're incredibly happy we proved that wrong. We have built a world-class software development team out here. All of our software is done in-house. All of our hardware development's now done in-house. We write our own apps out here for the software. It's all done out in regional Queensland,” Jocie enthuses.
FUTURE OF FARMING
The pair have a bold vision of revolutionising agriculture in every crop, in every nation and every kind of region in the world.
As if the SwarmFarm journey has not been exciting enough, Andrew and Jocie are on the precipice of the next phase; scaling up.
“Now we get to scale up the team and scale up the applications that the robots go into as well.
“Today a lot of our robots are going out with spray booms and weed detection sprayers so there is quite a lot of different applications now, including turf mowers and slashers.
“We're getting a lot of interest from a lot of different people asking if we can put this on board, or do this or that, so it will be a really interesting space to watch and a very exciting time,” Jocie said.
This is SwarmFarm’s chance to prove to the world they are a global company, strategising what the company’s overseas outlook will be. North and South America are of interest, but there are also opportunities in Asia as well as Europe.
Both Andrew and Jocie believe in the power of networking and encourage others with a business vision to network and learn from other start-ups.
“Keep asking lots of questions because you can do anything from anywhere.
“Sometimes you have just got to put one foot after the other and find your direction that way, because you'll never know all the answers going in.
“You've just got to make the decision. You're never going to know all the answers, you've just got to be prepared to get out there and get uncomfortable and walk into it,” Andrew encourages.
Andrew and Jocie Bate are the founders of robotic agriculture business, SwarmFarm; creating tailored solutions for efficient and sustainable agriculture through automation and robotics.
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