10.000 ha in 6 months, a robot that has proved its worth!

SwarmBot with the 24m spot spraying- Photos: Maxence Guillaumot
SwarmBot with the 24m spot spraying- Photos: Maxence Guillaumot

The SwarmBot, designed entirely in Australia by Queensland farmers to meet the specific needs of Australian farms, has successfully established itself in the modern farming landscape. Deployed on 70 farms across Australia, this innovative robot has been specially designed to meet the requirements of large-scale, mixed-crop operations.

Recently, the Australian company set out to conquer the North American market. On this occasion, Future Farming met Scott Wilson, an Australian farmer who invested in a SwarmBot robot at the beginning of May 2023. After six months’ use, Wilson shares his experience with us and explains why he has no regrets about his choice.

Robot and spot spraying, the winning combo!

Scott Wilson, after operating the SwarmBot for the past six months, has an impressive track record: 10,000 hectares covered, over 1,300 hours worked. A feat that testifies to the performance of this technology. To maximize its efficiency, he has equipped the robot with a custom-built Hayes sprayer, with a capacity of 1,000 liters and an additional 2,100-liter tank, offering increased autonomy.

The combination of the 75-hp robot and the sprayer towed has enabled Scott to increase productivity and autonomy. Despite a slower working speed of 10 km/h with the 24-meter wingspan, compared with his Fendt equipped with a 36-meter sprayer travelling at 15 km/h, the advantage lies in the SwarmBot’s ability to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, under favorable conditions.

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Significant reduction in working hours

The main advantage for Scott is the significant reduction in weekly working hours. The robot remains in the field continuously, a luxury that conventional machines cannot offer. This efficiency convinced him to opt for direct purchase of the SwarmBot, while commissioning Hayes Spraying to manufacture the custom sprayer, rather than renting, given the robot’s performance.

According to Scott, “The robot is made for spot spraying. On the one hand, you must pass by regularly, and on the other, the robot can run for several days before you even need to refill it with chemical”. This observation underlines the key advantage of the SwarmBot in spot spraying applications. Its ability to operate autonomously for several days, combined with its precision, perfectly meets the specific needs of this method. This flexibility enables precise and efficient management of treatments, optimizing the use of chemical resources while reducing human intervention.

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Swarmbot waiting for the wind to die down.
Swarmbot waiting for the wind to die down.

A very good user experience

According to Scott, the key to the SwarmBot’s effectiveness is its ease of use. Everything is managed directly from his cell phone, a tool he always has to hand. A single application concentrates all functionalities for controlling, adjusting, moving, and supervising the machine. Scott pre-configures the essential spraying parameters, like forward speed, wind limits for product application, via this app, enabling the robot to start its mission as soon as the parameters are optimal. He benefits from real-time monitoring of machine status and mission progress, without the need for an additional remote control. Scott can even switch the robot on and off remotely, making it unrivalled in its simplicity.

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Supervision - Engine feedback - Spraying configuration - Issues notifications
Supervision - Engine feedback - Spraying configuration - Issues notifications

Purchasing the robot directly from SwarmFarm guarantees reliable technical support. According to Scott, “The team manages to solve 90% of problems remotely.” For the remaining 10%, a company employee goes on site to intervene. “Often, the problem is solved within half a day, because Tom, [a SwarmFarm employee], lives nearby”. This proximity and responsiveness in after-sales service underlines SwarmFarm’s commitment to its customers.

Scott also emphasizes the responsiveness of the team at SwarmFarm, ready to develop new features for the application as user needs evolve. This close collaboration testifies to the manufacturer’s proactive listening to customer feedback, guaranteeing the continuous evolution of the technology to meet farmers’ real needs.

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Weed-IT spot spraying technologies (left).			Hayes 24-meters Sprayer (right).
Weed-IT spot spraying technologies (left). Hayes 24-meters Sprayer (right).

Integrated weather station, the key to autonomy

On the top of the SwarmBot is an integrated weather station, measuring variables such as wind and rainfall. This essential component is the cornerstone of the robot’s autonomy. On the one hand, it frees Scott from the worries associated with unexpected and varied climatic changes, guaranteeing dynamic adaptation to changing weather conditions. On the other hand, the weather station gives Scott the certainty of spraying as recommended, always.

Thanks to its application, Scott can set the ideal conditions for applying its products: temperature, wind speed, quantity to be applied, and so on. He knows that the robot will precisely respect these parameters, ensuring optimal application whatever the time of day, night, or weekend.

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In addition to this integrated weather station, several safety devices are installed on the front of the machine to prevent unwanted encounters. These include a bumper, lidar and emergency stop buttons. In addition, two cameras positioned at the front and rear of the robot give the farmer direct access to images via his app, enabling him to monitor the progress of operations in real time.

Reduce human intervention in logistics to a minimum

For now, Scott has chosen to deploy the robot only on a 2,000-hectare paddock. To move the machine more quickly, SwarmFarm offers a stand that can be attached to the back of a pick-up truck, but given the organization of his plot, Scott has never felt the need. Scott’s 2,000 hectares of plots are all private, which means the robot moves around autonomously most of the time, without human intervention.

One of the main advantages of spot spraying is the low frequency of refills, since on average only 10% of the surface is sprayed. If a refill is required, he simply draws a refill zone via the application. Most plots are equipped with water tanks, which facilitates the process. When the robot requires fuel or inputs, it sends a notification, then heads for the nearest refill station.

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At this stage, human intervention is required for manual refilling. However, SwarmFarm is currently working on an autonomous refilling station called a “Dock and Refill technology”, designed to automate this step. Once filled, the robot resumes its task where it left off, ensuring continuity of work until the next refill. On average, this operation takes around 20 min of human time per day. Then, Scott only crosses a 50-metre public road between two plots. However, apart from this exception, the robot can move autonomously across the entire paddock.

Impressive, still can improve

The 24-meter sprayer remains an experimental phase, according to Hayes Spraying. But Scott would like to see a 36-meter base to follow the rest of his machine fleet. Hayes spraying, on its website, announces the testing of a 36-meter sprayer prototype. Reducing the working width requires the farmer to make more passes over surfaces that are not necessarily compacted, which inevitably has an impact on productivity and costs.

After six months’ use, Scott notes a higher fuel consumption per hectare compared to his Fendt equipped with the 36m spot sprayer. This was due to the increased round-trip requirement of the 24-metre robot compared with the 36-metre model. What’s more, despite a less powerful engine, the time spent in static mode at low revs, waiting for favorable weather conditions, generates significant energy consumption.

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Robot’s lack of self-diagnosis

Another point raised concerned the robot’s lack of self-diagnosis. Scott explained a situation where a tire went flat without the robot detecting it. He explains, “In 99% of situations, everything goes well, but that’s why we pay an operator on a tractor, to manage those 1% unexpected situations ”. This example demonstrates the possible hazards in a field, underlining the need to improve the robot’s automatic detection and reaction capabilities to deal with such situations.

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Maxence Guillaumot Product and Market Analyst, AgTech Market
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