Robotics in primary industries - the revolution begins!

6 April 2017

Mike Duke

Professor Mike Duke

The robots are coming, and Professor Mike Duke from the University of Waikato’s School of Engineering will explain how humans can embrace their arrival in his Inaugural Professorial Lecture next week.

More than 70% of New Zealand’s merchandise exports come from the primary industries, with the Ministry for Primary Industries aiming to double primary exports from $32 billion in 2012 to $64 billion by 2025.(1)

Professor Duke says increasing labour costs, mainly due to the need to import labour, and concerns over labour reliability, coupled with environmental and health and safety legislation are threatening the profitability of many primary sector companies.

He says to address these issues, the widespread introduction of robotics and smart machinery into New Zealand’s primary industries could save companies money, improve safety, quality and efficiency.

“Robots have been used for decades in automotive factories and, more recently, they’ve been introduced in horticultural pack houses. However, ‘in field’ robotics is a much more difficult nut to crack, as the variability of the environment and products makes it far more difficult.

“Recent developments in computing power, algorithms and sensing, combined with advances in computer aided design and manufacturing technologies are resolving many of the problems. This will quickly lead to an army of ‘in field’ robots and smart machinery, replacing imported labour for many repetitive tasks.”

There are several examples of New Zealand-built ‘in field’ prototypes that are meeting, or are close to meeting, the commercial viability threshold. Once that tipping point is reached, there will be a revolution in the primary sector as ‘in field’ robots perform tasks including harvesting, pollination, weed spraying, thinning, transportation, quality control and pasture repair.

“As the revolution progresses, we’ll have to get used to the sight of robots roaming the fields and orchards of New Zealand,” says Professor Duke.

“There are interesting developments and opportunities linked to the introduction of robotics. One is the redesign of agricultural spaces to better utilise robots. A second is that New Zealand has a fantastic opportunity to not only improve its primary industry performance, but also export hi-tech, high-value machinery and services.”

In his Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Professor Duke will explain the work of the University’s AgriEngineering Research Group (and its partners), which aims to turn the vision of primary sector robotics and smart automation into a reality.

The lecture is at the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts on Tuesday 11 April starting at 5.15pm. The lecture is free and open to the public. Parking is free after 4.30pm in the University’s Gate 1 carpark. Inaugural Professorial Lectures are the University’s way of introducing its newest professors to the community.

(1) Ministry for Primary Industries