World's first solar-powered farmbot unveiled in Australia
Image: The University of Sydney

Named the Ladybird, this new robot is laser-guided and self-driving. It uses sensors and hyper-spectral cameras to collect data about pests and crop conditions as it moves around, which it automatically interprets and delivers to the farmer.

It has just completed a successful three-day test on an Australian farm that grows spinach, onions and beetroot. 

"Ladybird focusses on broad acre agriculture and is solar-electric powered. It has an array of sensors for detecting vegetable growth and pest species, either plant or animal,” said chief designer Salah Sukkarieh, professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the University of Sydney, in a statement. "She also has a robotic arm for the purposes of removing weeds as well as the potential for autonomous harvesting.” 

If there is a concern that the robot will replace jobs, Sukkarieh says that it will increase a farm’s efficiency and yield, freeing staff up from manual work to spend more time figuring out how to adjust and improve their methods using the information it collects. If the Ladybird picks up on the early stages of a crop disease or infestation, the staff will have the time to address these threats much quicker than if they were left to identify on the signs on their own.

According to Brian Merchant at Motherboard, the industry has welcomed the technology:

"Sukkarieh was awarded the 'Researcher of the Year' accolade by the Australian Vegetable Industry, which is apparently more excited at the prospect of getting some automated help than it is afraid the bot will take its jobs. In the dystopian-looking days ahead, when climate change has raised temperatures and brought less rainfall to arid-leaning regions, farmers will need all the help they can get to squeeze as much produce as possible out of increasingly less productive land."

Ed Fagan, the owner of the farm where Ladybird carried out its trial run, told the ABC, "A lot of the time in horticulture, if you're short of an element in the plant, by the time you see a symptom it's too late. [The Ladybird] will be able to pick up a nutrient deficiency before we see any symptoms. Secondly, you can use it at night at 2 o'clock in the morning and go out and do an insect survey, so things like cutworm popping out at night time, slugs, worms, things like that.”

It sounds pretty promising, but as Merchant at Motherboard points out, the technology will need to be affordable for a farm to buy and maintain, and it must be durable enough to justify. And just how much more efficient it can make a farm must offset the cost of the Ladybird to make the investment worthwhile.