STUDY: Blue Sky Produce manager Matt Fealy has won a Nuffield Scholarship to study robotics in horticulture.
STUDY: Blue Sky Produce manager Matt Fealy has won a Nuffield Scholarship to study robotics in horticulture. Contributed

World-wide tour to research robotics

MATT Fealy's interest in agriculture automation stemmed from frustration.

"There is often a lot of what I call fluff and foam talked about in this particular space,” he said.

"I guess I got a little frustrated seeing year after year these great media releases of these fantastic robots that are doing things that would have minimal financial, agronomic or yield benefit.”

But as a mixed horticultural grower himself, Matt feels he knows exactly where agricultural innovation should be focussing.

It was this drive to see improvements in autonomous machines that prompted Matt to apply, and win, his Nuffield Scholarship to explore this field worldwide.

His vast study topic has been narrowed down into three main areas.

"One is mechanised harvesting, that's what I call the B-HAG - or big harry audacious goal - that would be for the development of robotic harvesting,” he said.

Looking to use robots for crop forecasting and crop health are the other two topics.

Matt describes these as the "low-hanging fruit” concepts he believes have a high chance of being achievable in the very near future.

"Utilising some of the existing technologies and some of the new emerging technologies we can have the ability to get very accurate forecasting of what fruit is on the trees,” he said.

"For tree and crop health, we are looking at decision-making tools regarding nutrient delivery and the automated application of pesticides.”

Matt's scholarship will see him step away from farm management for about four months this year.

Although his official trip abroad has not commenced, his research is well under way.

"In the Netherlands, they have fully autonomous orchard sprayers that are able to go up and down the rows and spray the trees, then they can go back to shed and fill up the required dosage of pesticide and go back out and keep spraying.

"This is totally autonomous, there are no humans involved.”

Matt has also visited several universities within Australia.

"I visited the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney and spoke with their researchers there. They have some very robust systems that can drive up down the rows and determine the difference between fruit and leaf, so they can tell you the numbers of fruit per tree.

"They are still working on the ability to tell exactly what size the fruit is, but they believe it's very much achievable in the near future.”

Matt does not believe farmers will have to break the bank when this technology becomes available.

"One university I visited, that was very well-funded, was utilising all these amazing cameras, really bleeding-edge technology, and then another university, that was perhaps not so well funded, was achieving similar results with iPhones and Go Pros, so off-the- shelf solutions.

"I found that encouraging to see.”

The awarding of this scholarship will enable Matt to attend Automatica - International Trade Fair for Automation and Mechatronics in Germany.

He will also visit farms using robotics in Israel, the Netherlands and Spain. Although Matt is the one who is diving into his study, he said everyone on his farm would be pitching in.

"This will be an enormous undertaking,” he said.

"It wouldn't be possible without Nuffield and Woolworths, who are my sponsor, and also my family.

"I am going to be away for four months this year, I have four young kids and a farm to run.

"So my family are going to be...well, I will be leaning very heavily on them to do this.”