Australian farming robot trialled in Fiji amid food shortage crisis
20 July, 2018, 6:00 pm
SUVA, 20 JULY 2018 (ABC) – The Pacific Islands are experiencing a food shortage, but could Australian robot technology save the day?
A project run by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is working on a robust, low-cost robot that could help farmers in developing nations.
The Digital Farmhand uses smart phone technology to analyse data, assess plant health, and conduct spraying and weed control.
Researchers from Sydney University took the robot to Fiji for a field trial recently to see if the robot could be used to increase crop yield and produce more nutritious food.
Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics at the University of Sydney, said farmers in the Pacific were dealing with labour shortages and an ageing farmer population.
They are looking for a cheap and effective way of improving food production.
“The economic situation is very different,” Professor Sukkarieh said.
“Less money comes back to the farmers, so we need to think about reducing costs as well as improving quality.”
Project engineer, Muhammad Esa Attia, was on the ground in Fiji and said local farmers were very curious about the robot and interested to learn more about how technology could assist them in the future.
Although the Digital Farmhand performed well on the farms they visited, one of the main objectives of the field trial was to understand what level of technology would be appropriate to assist farmers.
The modular design of the robot will allow farmers to use the whole robot or components of its technology, like the spraying or weeding tools.
Keeping the technology accessible is important, according to Muhammad, who said the robot would also be easy to maintain.
“We have designed the robots to use basic manufacturing techniques that are available in places like Fiji,” he said.
“The components we use are readily available, off-the-shelf parts.”
Education, community involvement and cultural sensitivity are vital when introducing new technologies in developing communities, according to Professor Sukkarieh, who said it was important to consider how the robot would work over the long term in the islands.
“We have to consider how they would use these technologies, where does it make sense, where’s the value case?” he said.
“And the other part of the program is really looking at education because you need to be able to build that up with the community in order to delivery a sustainable programme over many years.”
According to the United Nations some developing countries in the Pacific will need to almost double food production by 2050 to feed their growing populations.
Eriko Hibi, Regional Coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, said that food insecurity had massive health repercussions for the region.
“The Pacific is currently facing a triple burden of malnutrition, what we call undernutrition, micro-nutrient deficiency and obesity, which has reached an unprecedented level of crisis,” said Eriko.