Olam Food Ingredients (OFI) is trialling 10 driverless GUSS orchard sprayers in its almond orchards near Wemen in northwest Victoria, Australia. The company is looking for a 20% increase in efficiency.
According to Damien Houlahan, Global Head Almonds Business of OFI, operational costs continue to rise, year on year in the orchards. “For us, GUSS presented an opportunity to counter these annual increases through savings in labour costs and other operational inputs”, he says.
By successfully adopting and implementing the GUSS technology, OFI can to deliver on two fronts, says Mr Houlahan. “Operational Excellence and cost control. This will keep us competitive and relevant in the current market.”
The cost efficiency is driven by savings in mainly labour costs but also repairs and maintenance and fuel costs. OFI aims for a more accurate and efficient application of chemical and fertiliser to the almond trees, improving overall cost efficiencies and minimising crop inputs to achieve the desired output. The pilot project started in June 2021 and will run until the end of December 2021.
OFI has spent around USD $ 2.8 million in capital on the project. An operation on this scale is a first for Australia. Mr Houlahan emphasises that OFI’s upstream farming businesses are continually looking at technology that enables them to farm more efficiently and sustainably. “GUSS is one example of that”, he says.
We need a 20% increase in efficiency to justify the 20% reduction in machine numbers
Olam is looking at about a 20 per cent uptick in area covered by fewer machines versus the conventional methods. “We need a 20% increase in efficiency to justify the 20% reduction in machine numbers”, Mr Houlahan explains. “We are not achieving this yet but as we fine-tune operational efficiencies and improve connectivity across our orchards, we will.”
The GUSS orchard sprayers apply pesticides, fungicides, and fertiliser as foliar sprays to the almond trees. They run for 22 hours per day. The units are operated by ‘GUSS Controllers’ from within the cab of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). The ATV is equipped with a laptop containing the GUSS-specific software and a truck-box or command node which talks to each of the units under its control.
From there, travel paths in the orchard are calculated and allocated to each GUSS unit. Each operator can oversee up to 8 machines. “We have opted for 5 per controller during the period of the pilot project”, says Mr Houlahan.
The robots run on diesel. There is also a fill process with a chemical refill vehicle. A nurse cart – a large tank pulled by a large tractor – is used to cart the spray solution to the GUSS units in the field, eliminating the need for the GUSS units to travel to the water source. A mixing trailer – effectively a ‘granny pot’ on wheels – also has storage space for the chemicals to be used in the spray. It enables the mixing of a concentrate of the spray solution at the water source asynchronously to the filling of the nurse carts.
Repairs and maintenance are executed by technicians employed by the agent for GUSS in Australia. These are done according to the R&M schedule supplied by the manufacturer. It is about 22% less expensive per shift than R&M to conventional sprayers due to the units being operated within manufacturing specifications at all times.
OFI plans to identify other sections of its almond production business that also could be automated. The company is considering to automate almond shaking, mummy nut removal, weed spraying and yield estimation.
For the adaptation of various new technologies connectivity will be improved in partnership with the State Government and a major service provider in Australia, Telstra. A ‘Smart Orchards’ Project – the construction of a communication tower on each orchard across our business – has started to allow data connectivity in all areas.
OFI is paving the way for the industry in this field, it seems. So far, the experience with the GUSS sprayers is positive. “Data connectivity is important in returning optimum efficiency from these units”, Mr Houlahan says. “Return on investment estimated in the initial investment thesis is achievable with the necessary data connectivity present.”
In just a year and a half, GUSS Automation has delivered their 100th autonomous orchard sprayer and now have GUSS machines spraying throughout the United States and in Australia. Olam Food Ingredients (OFI) is a new operating group born out of Olam International and also consists of Nuts, Cocoa, Coffee, Spices and Dairy.