Interview with evokeAG. speaker Dr. Chris Lehnert

Robots are being built with a sophisticated visual ability that enables them to detect when fruit or vegetables are ripe for harvesting.

This forward-thinking technology could soon be used to reduce labour costs for Australian growers.

A trial led by Dr Chris Lehnert, from the Queensland University of Technology, found robots could successfully identify and harvest up to 75 per cent of a capsicum crop grown in greenhouses or in protective cropping environments.

He will be speaking about the role robotics could play in future farming at the inaugural evokeAG. event to be held in Melbourne next year.

“I’m looking forward to demonstrating what robotics can do and also make sure we manage expectations because agriculture has been hurt in the past by technology.

“I want to motivate people to look at the business models and economics behind things first before we go and deploy such systems,” he said.

The trial, funded by the Queensland Government, focused on capsicum as it is predominantly grown in the Sunshine State. It found more success using robots in greenhouses as crops tended to grow higher and were more organised than if grown outdoors.

“The robot needs to understand the world, and then it needs to make a decision on how to act and remove it from the plant,” said Dr Lehnert.

On average, a robot takes 30 seconds to identify and remove the ripe fruit, whereas a human takes around 3-4 seconds to complete the same task.

Dr Lehnert believes there is the ability to improve response time however, he stressed automated harvesting is not aimed at replacing people but supporting Australian growers.

Harvesting labour accounts for 20 per cent or more of production costs, depending on the crop, while the industry is also faced by a scarcity of workers.

Any commercial application of such technology would require higher skilled employees. It is estimated there would need to be one operator per nine robots.

“It would mean upskilling and moving away from a dull and dangerous back-breaking job to operating technology,” said Dr Lehnert.

Delegates from around the world will converge at evokeAG. to hear essential discussions and debates about the exciting developments surrounding the future of our food and how it will be produced.

Dr Chris Lehnert will be joined on the panel by innovative grain and cattle farmer Andrew Bate who established SwarmFarm Robotics after realising that many traditional farming methods were no longer practical or sustainable. Both speakers are leaders in robotic technology and are looking forward to the sharing their knowledge and interacting with other industry experts.

Dr Lehnert believes evokeAG. will provide valuable insights into other robotic projects within the sector and complementary systems such as vertical farming.

“I visited Robotics Plus in New Zealand 12 months ago, and I just discovered that they are also attending the event, so I’m looking forward to catching up with them again. The research and development that they’re doing in Kiwi harvesting are very exciting.

“I’m also keen to talk to the other companies that are involved in vertical farming as I believe they are changing the way we think about growing food, bringing it indoors and making it more modular.

“I’m interested in talking to them about what is the next step to get vertical farming working for different crops because currently, they are focused on leafy greens and smaller crops. How do we use these concepts to grow any type of food?”

Join Dr Chris Lehnert, Andrew Bate and Israeli-based Nitza Kardish CEO of Trendlines Incubators on day one of evokeAG. for a thought-provoking session facilitated by Fiona Simson of the National Farmers Federation. The dynamic trio will offer their views on the topic of how traditional agricultural methods won’t be able to meet the needs of the future. Hosted by Westpac, the discussion will also examine how automation is rapidly advancing with new robotic perception systems, autonomous harvesting and how industrial warehouse automation is changing the face of the industry.

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