Ageing farmers, tighter immigration laws and jobs nobody wants.

The agricultural industry is facing challenges that technology and robotics can solve.

And now is the time for investors and farmers to get on board with these new technologies to address growing sustainability and food shortage issues, according to Robotics Plus managing director Steven Saunders.

Robotics Plus is a New Zealand-based company producing mechanisation, automation, robotics and sensor technologies for the horticulture and other primary industries in an effort to address a number of challenges for the sectors, including labour shortages, sustainability and pollination gaps.

The start-up recently secured an $11 million ($US8 million) investment from Japanese motoring giant Yamaha and has rolled out its first products, including a robotic apple packer and automated kiwifruit pollination system.

Embracing innovative new technologies will be crucial to the agricultural and farming sectors surviving and proving sustainable in the future, Saunders said.

“These technologies will start to play a role in being able to provide long-term sustainability to farming and food supply to populations,” Saunders told Information Age.

“We have to start investing in these technologies now to develop them in time for when the real crunch comes.

“That gets growers and ecosystems used to the idea of these technologies.

“It’s going to be an important solution moving forward.”

Saunders began the company’s journey about a decade ago with his co-founder, then-PhD student Alistair Scarfe, in an effort to solve a number of problems they had seen in the agriculture sector, including aging farmers, the tightening of immigration laws and the “sheer fact that people didn’t want to do these laborious tasks anymore”.

But applying robotics and automation to farming is an “incredibly complex task”, Saunders said.

“It’s not like using robotics in a factory, it’s going into an unknown environment with weather, terrain and a whole lot of challenges,” he said.

“We needed to create technologies that can see through to identify those types of structures and constraints.”

ACS’ Australia’s IoT Opportunity report last year found potential annual run rate benefits of between $14-22 billion in applying new technologies to the agriculture sector.

“Adopting IoT technology would help primary producers increase yields and reduce costs, which in turn would lift probability and improve the competitiveness of Australian product in international markets,” the report found.

It found big opportunities in these new smart farms, especially in Australia, where distance and access to labour are key problems.

Robotics Plus has now rolled out a robotic apple packing technology, which automates the process of packing apples into trays.

The robot can handle up to 120 apples per minute.

For the forestry sector, the company has produced a robotics option that can quicken up the measuring process by up to four times.

The early focus for the company is on these specialist crops, including apples, kiwifruit, mangoes and avocados.

“These are crops that require high levels of labour, and those industries have had a lot of access to labour over the years but that’s now changing and it’s becoming really high pressure,” Saunders said.

Robotics Plus secured the $US8 million investment from Yamaha late last year, following on from $US2 million in funding from the same company earlier in 2018. The funding round was the result of about 18 months of discussions, Saunders said, and the deal is about much more than just money.

“It wasn’t just an investment but also a partnership agreement, and what we saw there was an opportunity to work with a multinational who could help us develop the components for automation, and for us to help them in the development of these components,” he said.

“We’ve got a great young team of roboticists and engineers, but not necessarily with the experience of designing it for long-term manufacturing. Yamaha really presented a great opportunity from an investment and partnership opportunity.”

The deal with such a prominent global company has also helped Robotics Plus bring farmers onboard with these new technologies, in a traditionally technology-conservative sector, Saunders said.

“Companies like Yamaha investing in and supporting you gives you a lot of power behind you as a company when facing clients,” he said.

“There is a lot of horsepower behind us to develop the technologies, and that gives a lot of confidence in building those relationships and starting to solve the problems.”

The funding boost has also helped to expand the company’s team from 12 people to 42, with this number set to increase to 50 by the end of the year.

Saunders was in Australia for the Evoke AG conference, Australia’s biggest agri-food tech event taking place in Melbourne. He said this event provided an opportunity to investigate the potential of rolling out new technologies in Australia.

“This conference has been a really good initiative to bring New Zealand and Australia together,” he said. “If we develop smarter technologies and better growing systems, there are better opportunities for both countries. This could give Australasia more opportunities to play in a global market.”

“Agriculture is very complex and I don’t think any one company is going to solve the problem, so partnerships and relationships are key. It’s also about having to take a whole of systems approach to solving these problems.”