SwarmFarm Robotics has announced it will launch its Dock and Refill technology in April 2024. This advancement will enable their spray robots to autonomously refill and refuel themselves.
“It promises to untether equipment size from productivity”, says CEO and founder Andrew Bate. “Many people see the issue of farm equipment – like tractors, planters and harvesters – getting bigger and bigger, and the inflexibility to customise management practices to meet the needs of local soil types and farming systems. We have done something to address that problem.”
The Dock and Refill technology has three components to the system: a docking arm, a payload pod, and traffic control. When a robot senses low fuel or product, it returns to a docking station to refill. Multiple robots can use the same dock.
Mr Bate says the autonomous technology is ‘truly revolutionary’. “Because up until now, farm equipment productivity was tied to machine size and the payload it could carry. We have effectively untethered productivity from ‘big iron’. This does not just impact broadacre, the benefits will flow to row crop and horticultural customers as well.”
The SwarmFarm CEO points out that sprayer manufacturers, for example, have increased their tank size purely in pursuit of higher productivity. “An Agrifac Endurance has an 8,000-litre tank and 55-metre boom. But the downside is the excess weight of these machines, the damage to the soil, the complexity of designing large machines, and the cost to build and maintain them.”
“The only reason modern farm machinery is so big, is because farmers have been demanding more acres per day per person. There is no other reason. Same goes for the size of airseeder commodity carts, planter seed boxes and fertiliser spreaders.”
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SwarmFarm has made the choice to design its robots to be lightweight, low cost and simple, Mr Bate emphasises. “And we have delivered excellent productivity with a 24/7 operation. Some of our customers are achieving over 3,000 hours of use each year.”
“However, for a lightweight autonomous machine to truly achieve its potential, while only carrying a small payload, it needs to be able to refill itself. Otherwise, farmers are required to refill robots in the middle of the night or are interrupted when doing other tasks around the farm.”
Mr Bate says the company has made ‘excellent headway’ with spot spraying technology onboard its robots, which only needs a small herbicide payload. SwarmFarm has now covered 2.2 million commercial acres, 115,000 hours of operation, and reduced pesticide inputs by an estimated 2 million tons with its autonomous robots.
“Our Dock and Refill technology opens up new opportunities for high volume application blanket spraying for products such as fungicides, insecticides and liquid fertiliser application”, Mr Bate explains. “The technology can handle granular products, so this enables opportunities for achieving the same productivity gains for field operations including planting, applying granular or dry products such as fertiliser, lime, gypsum, and organic products such as mulch, biologicals fertilisers, as well as harvesting.”
The Dock and Refill technology is mobile, and can be either attached to a trailer or setup in a fixed position central to the farm. Currently, SwarmFarm is finishing up its alpha testing. It will be launching a beta in November. Dock and Refill will be commercially available in April of 2024