Automation is part of the solution to rebuild areas hit by fires

With an estimated 12.35 million acres of land and 2,500 homes and business having been destroyed in the recent runaway fires that ravaged the landscape since September 2019, Australia is now faced with the enormous and arduous task of rebuilding the country.

While this might seem like an insurmountable task to many, the fires also bring new opportunities to the adjacent industries involved in helping rebuild the homes, buildings and farmland that were lost in the fire, giving an opportunity to jumpstart the economy. This is particularly true in the agriculture industry, which comprised 14 per cent of the total land that was burned by the Australian bushfires. By mid-January, an estimated 820,000 ha of agricultural land had been destroyed across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Rising up from the ashes
Cobot manufacturer Universal Robots, believes that while this tragic event has left a trail of destruction and Australia still needs to recover from the loss to its ecosystem, companies may be able to speed up the process of rebuilding by implementing technological advancements across the spectrum.

With applications ranging from packaging and palletising, assembly, welding, product handling and many more, UR cobots can tackle those tedious tasks that require superhuman abilities to repeat the same movement over and over again for many hours with exactly the same precision. Cobots have been successfully deployed across a range of industries and have become more common in manufacturing environments.

“A big benefit UR cobots hold in this rebuilding process is that it provides manufacturers and industry with the ability to act fast, increase productivity, profits and offer higher quality products,” said Darrell Adams, Head of SEAO at Universal Robots.

Cobots can be programmed, operated and maintained by existing employees, regardless of the team’s previous robotics or automation experience. In fact, the out-of-box experience for an untrained operator to unpack a UR robot, mount it, and program the first simple task is typically less than an hour according to Adams.

Food production accelerated
As far as the agriculture industry is concerned, the company believes that farmers in Australia need all the help they can get. With automated agriculture going from strength to strength, cobots can offer an effective solution. According to a recent report, the market for agricultural robots is expected to reach $35 billion within the next five years.  “Cobots can prove their agricultural worth by assisting producers in getting their businesses back up and running faster and more efficiently,” says Adams.

He notes that UR cobots can be applied to a number of requirements within the agriculture and food processing sector. Robots are successfully used in planting, seeding, fertilising, irrigation, weeding, thinning, pruning, harvesting and milking applications among others.

The company prides itself in the cobot’s ability to handle delicate agricultural processes and products. Such an example can be found in the dairy industry, where a UR robot arm mounted to a small pallet jack is used to disinfect and milk cows, cutting labour costs and time taken to complete the job. The robot takes up no more space than a human milker and doesn’t require any safety caging.

Another application where cobots can be implemented is in the packaging of goods that are sent to market. Adams notes one case study of a UR10 robot, installed at a food manufacturer. The robot worked independently to pack vanilla cream bags into cartons, but also formed part of a network that includes a carton erector, a carton sealer, and a filling machine. “This is one of the real benefits of cobots – it can work alongside workers and form part of your factory process.”

Collaborative robots are also ideal for hygienic food processing environments, where it can operate around the clock during seasonal periods of high production and can be easily redeployed to new applications as needed, helping local farmers reach their production goals faster.

A local success story
Developed by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in proud partnership with Universal Robots, Harvey, a robotic harvester combines state-of-the-art robotic vision and manipulation techniques to identify and harvest capsicums.

Harvesting labour in Australia ranges from 20 – 40 per cent of operational farming costs and this combined with a shortage of skilled labour can result in some of the crops not being harvested.

In recent trails, Harvey used images from a camera-in-hand system to locate the fruit. A motion planning algorithm was then used to command a novel multi-mode harvesting tool to safely detach the fruit. Results show a fruit harvesting success rate of 76.5% – a significant improvement when compared to the state-of-the-art, which achieved 33% in a similar scenario. Harvey also achieved an average pick time of 20 seconds for this field trial compared to 106 seconds by its predecessor.

This year, QUT will further develop Harvey as part of its involvement in the new Future of Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre backed by $35M in Australian Government funding over 10 years, and $149.6M in cash and in-kind funds from more than 50 participants.

Making cobots accessible to everyone
According to Adams, UR has just released a financial services leasing programme which could prove to be a lifeline for producers who are rebuilding their business. “We are levelling the playing field by enabling all manufacturers to immediately put cobots to work without an upfront capital investment. UR Financial Services offers a fast, low-risk and financially-friendly model to accelerate automation. The partnership makes it easy to upgrade existing cobots, add additional units or test cobots for the first time – and equips users to maximise productivity, quality and profitability, without increasing costs or cash outlay” says Adams.

“It’s time to think more laterally about agriculture. Robotics is the revolutionary new technology which can change the way we think about producing food,” he concluded.