Describe yourself in three words.
Lanky, late and lucky.
How are you involved with your family’s farming enterprise?
At Jedburgh Farming Pty Ltd, north-west of Warren in NSW, our family grows dryland grains and irrigated cotton. Before that, they were farming in Moree and also breed Angus cattle near Guyra. In the past eight years, I’ve had various levels of involvement but always endeavor to maintain as much as possible — from working during school holidays to a few full-time stretches, as well as moving away and returning for planting and harvest. About nine months ago, I moved to Emerald in Central Queensland after finishing university to work for SwarmFarm Robotics — which has sadly limited how much I can help out at home.
Who are your role models – both in farming and outside the industry?
I have been very lucky in my short time to have spent time around some patient mentors who have been generous with their wisdom and enthusiasm. I admire and have learnt from plenty. But my greatest influence in farming by far would be my Dad. Outside of agriculture, I recently developed an admiration for R.G. LeTourneau, after another farmer recommended a book by the prolific inventor, philanthropist and Christian. He supplied about 70 per cent of the earthmoving equipment used by the Allies in World War Two, and he and his wife have a United States university named in their honour.
What are the biggest challenges facing agriculture in your area?
Unpredictable weather and connectivity are the main two issues. I’m sure the weather has always been a challenge but in recent years, it seems weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable. Ten-day weather forecasts seem increasingly over-optimistic. Meanwhile, growth in farming productivity has been plateauing and while adoption of digital technology promises new means of efficiency, the limiting factor is the quality of mobile connectivity on farms.
If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would you do or change?
I’d invest in Australia’s weather forecasting capabilities and open up the radio spectrum for wireless communications. A large proportion of data radios and communication equipment used in Australia is imported from the United States. Australia’s radio spectrum laws are more restrictive than the US laws, though, and so when these radios enter Australia, they are detuned to put out about only one-quarter of the power, and use about half the bandwidth. Trying to improve radio communications without reforming spectrum laws is like trying to drive faster along a road that needs grading.
In a perfect world, what would the future look like for your business?
I’m sure some rain would be widely appreciated. At the moment, the big goal is to see out the end of the drought. A longer-term goal is to reach a scale where we can operate in a couple of different regions, to spread risk across a couple of different weather zones.
What does your work with SwarmFarm Robotics involve?
SwarmFarm Robotics was started by Andrew and Jocie Bate in Emerald, Queensland, where they also run their mixed grain and beef operation. The SwarmFarm vision is to enable new and improved farming practices through robotics. Instead of a big, heavy and complex sprayer or tractor, SwarmFarm builds small, light-weight, smart and simple robots – and lots of them. Instead of flying over a paddock quickly and uniformly with an operator in the cab, SwarmFarm’s robots trawl along all day and night, repeating simple tasks accurately. These robots are a platform for whatever implement a grower can dream up, and a gateway to growers being able to stop at each plant and manage it individually.
In layman’s terms, what does your day-to-day job at SwarmFarm Robotics entail?
I work as an engineer in the development team. When we’re not out in the paddock doing a spray-job or testing robots, I’m usually working with a GPS, radio or sensor – or writing computer code. A pretty common picture is being parked next to a paddock with a robot driving past and a laptop or iPad on my lap.
What led you to SwarmFarm Robotics?
While studying, I came up to Emerald over a few summers to do some work experience and loved it. I also was really keen to move up and be a part of Emerald, where I get to work with and learn from great people, doing exciting work with practical outcomes. And I still get to spend plenty of time in the paddock and the shed.
Is there potential for feasible application of robotics throughout the wider industry?
Yes, I think robotics offer potential across Australian agriculture and beyond. These robots are about providing a platform for whatever new implement you’d like in your paddock – such as smartphone to an app. The platform is ready to go, and more and more apps will start appearing as time goes on. Orders are now being taken for SwarmFarm’s robots and customer deliveries begin this month.
Is agricultural technology and engineering where you want to spend the rest of your career?