Machinery

Background

SwarmFarm goes global with agricultural robots

Robotics firm SwarmFarm is raising 6 million Australian dollars to upscale the company. After 8 years in Australia SwarmFarm is planning to go global.

“We have built SwarmFarm to be a global company”, emphasises CEO Andrew Bate. “We are now bringing investment partners on board that can help us in that journey. That is a big focus for us at the moment.”

Mr Bate says that he is developing a strategy for the expansion. “We are looking hard at which markets make sense for us. Where we can add the most value. We think that we will have our plan formed within the next six months. But it also depends on the countries we go to first.”

Australia a good testing ground

According to the SwarmFarm founder, Australia has proved to be a good testing ground for his agtech company. “Most of the major machine manufacturers release and test in Australia before they release their product on the global market. Because we have a tough farming environment.”

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Andrew Bate: " What excites me the most, is that AI is changing our farming practises." Photo: SwarmFarm.
Andrew Bate: " What excites me the most, is that AI is changing our farming practises." Photo: SwarmFarm.

SwarmFarm has great opportunities in the United States, says CEO and founder John Hartnett of SVG Ventures, a Silicon Valley investment firm, who saw a presentation of SwarmFarm in Melbourne recently. “They have made considerable progress in Australia. Now they need to translate that and get into major farms in California and the west coast of the US. That would really help them scale up.”

8 SwarmFarm robots sold

In the past 8 years SwarmFarm founder and CEO Andrew Bate has been developing and building the company in Gindie, in the state of Queensland, together with his wife Jocie Bate, who is an agricultural economist. The company has sold 8 robots commercially, which makes SwarmFarm a frontrunner in its field.

We‘ve got 8 robots out there now and they are all used by farmers every day. We‘re very proud of that

“Very few companies have got to the stage of actually handing over the keys”, says Mr Bate. “We‘ve got 8 robots out there now and they are all used by farmers every day. We‘re very proud of that.”

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A SwarmFarm robot with a slasher attached in the field. - Photo: SwarmFarm
A SwarmFarm robot with a slasher attached in the field. - Photo: SwarmFarm

SwarmFarm is in the process of building a new head office in Gindie, a small locality in rural Queensland. “We‘re based on a farm”, explains Mr Bate. “We are one of the few agtech companies that are based in the middle of a rural region. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Nearly of all of the startups here are based in capital cities. I don’t think that is very handy for agtech.”

SwarmFarm recently received a grant of 250.000 Australian dollar from the Queensland government as part of their programme for rural economic development. “We can build our new office partly because we are employing people in new roles in a rural town. We are really exited about that. To go from a startup phase with scrappy offices to a professional facility is fantastic.”

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Andrew Bate has been developing and building the company in Gindie, in the state of Queensland, together with his wife Jocie Bate, who is an agricultural economist. - Photo: René Groeneveld
Andrew Bate has been developing and building the company in Gindie, in the state of Queensland, together with his wife Jocie Bate, who is an agricultural economist. - Photo: René Groeneveld

Light robots of just over 2,000 kilos

SwarmFarm’s CEO came up with the idea for his light robots, of just over 2,000 kilos, when he was driving his new tractor on his farm. He thought up an idea that would save farmers time and would go against the trend that tractors would have to be getting bigger, wider and more expensive.

Farmers can choose the accessories with which the robot is equipped. “We don’t build the tools or attachments that go on our robots. We are a base platform. At the moment a lot of them are going out with spot spraying technology on board, but some also with mower decks or slashers.”

Recently SwarmFarm announced building robots with an autonomous fertiliser spreader and with flower counting and thinning technology.

Mechanical weeding

“We are talking to several companies about bringing new technology on board”, says Mr Bate. “Like alternative weed killing technology. We are looking at mechanical weeding at the moment. That is very much about resistance weed management. But we are also very interested in microwave technology for killing weeds. All of these will be done through partnerships.”

Artificial Intelligence

Mr Bate is convinced that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will eventually be part of the solution for farming worldwide. “What excites me the most, is that it is changing our farming practises. How we physically interact with crops. We have had a lot of big data and remote sensing and all sorts of mapping products available on the precision ag side but we really drag the chain worldwide on farming practices that actually can make the changes.”

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A SwarmFarm robot was on display recently at EvokeAG in Melbourne. - Photo: René Groeneveld
A SwarmFarm robot was on display recently at EvokeAG in Melbourne. - Photo: René Groeneveld

The SwarmFarm CEO notices that farming practises are already changing. “That’s the thing that excites me, being a farmer myself. When we head out into the fields and start killing weeds in different ways or change the agronomy about how we apply nutrition or when we are manipulating crops with flowering. These are the things that robots are bringing into play and that are not seen yet.”

Our focus is about getting the weight off the paddocks and reducing the soil compaction

It will not be easy for some people to understand the actual concept of robotics, expects Mr Bate. “A lot of people think about automation in terms of getting people out of their cabs. But that really is not what we set out to do with SwarmFarm. Our focus is about getting the weight off the paddocks and reducing the soil compaction. And enabling that next wave of agtech and new field practises by autonomy.”

Mr Bate points out that some of his customers were used to 500 horsepower tractors. “When they look at our small robots, it’s a complete change. It needs a change of thought processes to realise that small robots can do big operations.”

Smaller robots in the future

In horticulture, the SwarmFarm robots are a bit bigger than some of the machines that are currently used. “So there we‘ve got to fit in where we can. There are some things we can’t do in horticulture now. But we will look at building smaller robots in the future as well.”

The SwarmFarm founder expects there will be multiple players in the agricultural robotics industry in the future. “We are going to need each other to build this industry out”, he says. “Collaboration is a good thing. We can help each other because it is a pioneering industry.”

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A SwarmFarm team with a robot in the field. - Photo: SwarmFarm
A SwarmFarm team with a robot in the field. - Photo: SwarmFarm

Electric drives

The robots of SwarmFarm work with a 75 horsepower diesel engine. While other robotic firms choose to go electric, the SwarmFarm CEO thinks that electric drives are not an urgent matter in agriculture. “We had a lot of enquiries about electric drives”, says Mr. Bate. “Particularly in orchard- and vineyard areas. Electrification in agriculture is coming. But right now we are proving autonomous farming, not electric drives in agriculture. Electrification is an add-on for that. It is not our focus right now. As it makes sense to do so, we‘ll look into it a bit harder.”

Docking- and refuelling station

SwarmFarm will first work on a docking- and refuelling station for its autonomous robots. It will help the company to keep the weight of the machines down. “Autonomous refuelling means our robots can be smaller and lighter and will do less damage to the soil”, says Mr Bate. “So there is a very big incentive to head that way. It will become a priority for us mid year. That’s when we will be doing more work on this. With fungicides and insecticides and even fertiliser applications this will become more critical.”

The SwarmFarm robot 'Juliet', with a 12 metre boom and 3 metre wheel centres. - Photo: SwarmFarm
The SwarmFarm robot 'Juliet', with a 12 metre boom and 3 metre wheel centres. - Photo: SwarmFarm

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