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William Rolleston sees turning 'swords' into 'ploughshares' in the building of robotic farms for a second Green Revolution

Rural News
William Rolleston sees turning 'swords' into 'ploughshares' in the building of robotic farms for a second Green Revolution

By William Rolleston*

In the very near future ‘drones’ could well take the place of workers in forestry and a host of different industries.

It may be a case of not wishing too hard for what the CTU wants because an obvious solution to “carnage,” as CTU President Helen Kelly graphically described forestry, is to completely remove the person from the risk equation. No person, no accident.

The CTU has demanded to know how forestry will stop the “carnage” and we know agriculture is also in the CTU’s crosshairs.

In 2010, the Forest Owners Association was one of the first to enter into a Primary Growth Partnership with the Government.

This has flown under the CTU and media radar but the PGP’s vision is “no worker on the slope, no hand on the chainsaw”.

The ultimate outcome will likely be drone logging machines, reflecting an increasing use of robotics on-farm and in our farm system.

Of course we could adopt Exxon’s obsession with safety.  One article I read last year said that every Exxon meeting starts with a "safety confessional". Exxon’s safety stretch even reaches into the employee’s home to enforce a total safety culture. Somehow, I think even the CTU would baulk at this level of intrusion.

We already see military drones on the news where there is a human in control. Militaries, including our own, are deploying autonomous air, sea and underwater vehicles. A future of sentient robotic war fighters has even seen UN Special Rapporteur, Christof Heyns, call for a moratorium on the development of lethal autonomous robots (LARs).

What if we turned these ‘swords’ into ‘ploughshares’ as autonomous agricultural robots; making AARs not LARs.

This is not as far-fetched as some may believe. 

Robotic milking is now established on many dairy farms and robotics is seen as a potential breakthrough for the processing of meat.

Precision agriculture is seeing the marriage of GPS and tractors for the effective application of nutrients.

Today’s tractors can drive themselves between waypoints reducing driver fatigue and freeing the operator to focus on other important tasks. Raglan’s Droidworx picked up the Most Viable Business award at the 2013 Fieldays for miniature Unmanned Air Vehicles.

Droidworx UAV’s can be fitted with cameras, sensors or even spray tanks for selective spraying.

Evolved versions could play a big role in surveying pasture quality and quantity, monitoring stock, locating poachers and perhaps applying fertiliser.

Driverless tractors and even robotic electric fence movers are not far away either.

Labour productivity in agriculture has always been New Zealand’s star-turn.

Between 1996 and 2010, dairy farming labour productivity soared by almost 70 percent and for a very good reason; New Zealand’s farmers readily adopt new technologies where there is a commercial payback. 

Robotics, automation and autonomy are logical extensions of this philosophy. Take Oshkosh Corporation’s Terramax driverless truck. Terramax is intended for reconnaissance and freight transport in high-risk environments. As an autonomous vehicle it can work its way around roadblocks or obstructions to where it is told to go. It does not take a big stretch of the imagination to see a Terramax type system remove the drivers from harvesters and attendant trucks altogether.

Farms For Sale: the most up-to-date and comprehensive listing of working farms in New Zealand, here »

Harvesting times could be extended or take place when conditions are at their optimum without the need for contactor breaks or log books. 

Could even chemical pest control be displaced by legions of nano-sized ‘hunter-killer’ robots?  New Scientist magazine seems to think so.

So much that was science fiction when Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered “I’ll be back” is now science fact. Anyone with adaptive cruise control or active park assist knows that driverless cars are just around the corner.

Business, the CTU and the government all need to start planning and adapting for these disruptive technologies. 

In agriculture, the human role will move to planning, management and maintenance, giving farmers more time to manage their businesses rather than being enmeshed in the day-to-day minutiae.

This is more time to perfect the art of farming.

I believe it is here that the physical sciences could achieve substantial world-beating breakthroughs for agriculture and New Zealand.

In global agriculture we speak of the need for a second Green Revolution. I believe autonomy along with other technologies could play a massive role in what will be agriculture’s ‘silicon revolution’.

The robotic farm is really a matter of when rather than if.

It is also where the recent national Science Challenges, Callaghan Innovation and the Primary Growth Partnerships provide a means for New Zealand to develop these world-leading technologies. Droidworx UAV’s reminds us that around the corner are the next electric fence, the next Hamilton jet and the next tranquiliser gun.

Health and safety is critical and pressure from the CTU will have at least one rational response.

Radical though they seem, robotics and automation are a means to manage a very real health and safety issue facing our primary industries.


Dr William Rolleston is the Vice-President of Federated Farmers. This article was first published in The Press and is used here with permission.

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While the cost of this technology may prevent wholesale acceptance at the moment this is certainly where the industry is heading.

Bigger farms, less people per acre working the farm, more machinery.

Consumers will let their wallet do the talking and if the robot picked apples are cheaper then the hand picked ones, those will be bought. Nostalgia will not prevent this from happening.


What an empty soul-less vision springs to mind


Would someone please explain to me who all the customers are once there is no human working to earn money to buy the produce, the machines?? Don't think so. Sure looks like the luddites knew what they were talking about.

We are seeing already what happens to people when the ordinary jobs disappear, not everyone can be a brain surgeon, an accountant or a property developer, and there are so many people now for whom there isn't space for in the economic world, because the grunt work is vanishing, but the people who would normally have done it, are not. This has been happening for many years now, till now, we have a whole lot of people for whom there just plain aren't jobs anymore. What do we do about it, well, we blame those people

This new world was talked of when I was a child. where machines would take over the work and we would all share in a world where we would not have to perform these menial and dangerous tasks and prosper. Indeed it was a socialist world, but it is only way this will work, because the idea was that the machines work FOR people not simply DISPLACE them.




No doubt about it robots and automation are and will continue to be play an ever increasing part of  any successful ecconomy.  Why then are we alowing whoesale immigration.  We can't even productively employ our current population.


B.. b..b..but shurely we can nevah have too many baristas, aromatherapists, and manicurists?


But seriously, driverless vehicles have been around for over a decade now:  e.g. the haul road out of an opencast is typically devoid of human drivers:  they are reserved for the spotting at the pit face and the dumping at the top.  It's the boring bit in between which lends itself to automation.


Same for agriculture - ya don't see too many humans driving around the big centre-pivots, calculating which bit of pasture needs how much dihydrogen monoxide, and modulating the flows to suit.  And back in the olden days of steam, wire-hauled plows sitting between two traction engines were starting to be used on the more wide open, flat fields.  Convert That concept to electric-hauled and watch them meters spin....


Same for CNC machinery, robot welders, robots which stack toilet paper and salt onto pallets, robots which slice up a carcass having been fed the optimum cut angle from a clevver scanner, robots which built most of yer car, yada yada.


Soon, I predict, we will hear Normal Russian bewailing the loss of Factory Work - like the chains at the freeezing works - all that luvverly human interaction. 


Leetle story - at the Ocean Beach works (where I tied tickets on recently deceased sheeps at the end of a chain - now There was a job fer a robot, but I digress) fond memory is of the entire 8 (or was it 9) chains, perhaps 400 souls, belting out 'Cheryl Moana Marie'.   Darn near as good as Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral. 


Robot That, as they say.....but of course Ocean Beach, which used to conveyor out all the bones and bits straight into Foveaux Strait and the waiting sharks out back - the boneyard had impressively sized rodents -  is a big carpark these days.  Ditto Patea, Makarewa, and a host of others. 


Ah, l'nostalgie....


Rolleston doesn't 'get it'. I watched him and Jonathan Boston last week, indulging in intense discussion, and thought ' neither of them get it'.


What he is describing, is 'efficiencies'. Nothing more, nothing less. Take the pilot weight out of the aircraft, more payload available. The problem - as with all efficiencies - is that there is an upper limit. 100% payload, aircraft weight nil, fuel consumption zero, would be the upper goal. You never get there, you go for the low-hanging fruit first, and the returns get less and less for more and more effort.


We are well down that track already, and Rolleston needs a lesson in EOREI. As does Boston. Overshoot was 1980, and the book was written in NZ; the word 'unsustainable' comes to mind. It's not the robotic slicing of carcasses (my oldest boy was part of the build/install, at Scottech) that is the issue, it's the fossil fuel calorie to meat calorie ratio that's up the shute.


Depends entirely on the substitutability of said energy.


Much, perhaps most, farming direct energy input can be electrified - irrigators, them robots - are certainly not running off fossil fuels.  That's exactly why I mentioned electric wire-hauled ploughing above.  The power of falling water....especially if Rio Tinto release 17% of NZ's generation capacity....


To be sure, the metals etc are gonna need energy to mine, smelt and transport.  But NZ is fairly self-sufficient in coking coal etc already - PRCC was sitting on an estimated 20-40m tonnes of the best steel-making coal in the biz.


And plastics etc feedstock can be bio-farmed:  there are already so many tweaks available to little, enslaveable life forms (Lanzatech being one of many...) that it's more a question of 'what type of carbon ring molecule wouldja like to order?'  And with Dino-Juice past the $USD110 mark, the economics of the alternatives look better all the time.


Glass half full.


Yes lets use more and more energy....more and more scarce and expensive energy...and ppls ability to pay? or find the energy?

does not compute....clueless IMHO.