Can robots and AI help address the world's food security issues?

2 November 2022
Ag-robots have potential to mitigate food security issues
Agricultural robotics expert Professor Salah Sukkarieh will this week address the United Nations on the role of agricultural robotics in improving global food security.

Ending global hunger has long been a critical goal for the global community. When the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were released in 2014, ending hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition formed SDG2.

Though there has been some progress in the fight against hunger – ongoing conflicts, climate change, economic downturns and the COVID-19 pandemic have been major barriers to achieving SDG2. As of 2020, according to the UN, 720 and 811 million people globally faced hunger, and current estimates suggest that 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030. 

Professor Salah Sukkarieh, a robotics engineer at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, will this week speak at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Global Conference on Sustainable Plant Production in Rome (2-4 November).

Co-chairing the conference's Mechanization and Digitalization session, he will discuss how agricultural robotics and AI can support nutrition security and increase productivity and yields, drawing on his team's development of autonomous agricultural robots that have been designed to improve food security in the Asia-Pacific.

The team has developed Digital Farmhand, a small, autonomous, electric tractor-like vehicle can assist smallholder farmers to improve their productivity and yields.

“It’s projected that APAC will need to increase food production by up to 77 percent to feed its communities by 2050. Bold steps must be taken to accelerate progress towards addressing the major drivers of food insecurity, malnutrition, and equal access to food – as well as drive smart solutions that give back power to local farmers,” said Professor Sukkarieh. 

Digital Farmhand. Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

“Our Digital Farmhand robot is designed to assist smallholder farmers to improve their productivity and yields and, ultimately, provide a more reliable income amidst changing markets and climates. In its simplest form the Digital Farmhand is a small, autonomous electric tractor-like vehicle that can tow a variety of implements such as seeders, weeders and bed preparation tools, and can undertake precision automation of many labour-intensive farm tasks, like weeding, spraying and seeding.”

“Digital Farmhand can also use accessible smartphone technologies along with AI to provide crop analytics such as yield estimation or pest and disease identification.”

Professor Sukkarieh’s team is looking to build a localised, modular version of Digital Farmhand using materials that can be readily sourced within the APAC region, including electric/petrol scooter parts, making maintenance easier for communities. They are also developing open-source artificial intelligence packages for smartphones which can be easily accessed in the APAC. 

“Our studies and fieldwork have found that the issues concerning smallholder farmers in the APAC are no different to those in Australia, so we believe the technology can provide the same benefits. However, it is the economics of introducing the technology that requires different solutions.”

Low Luisa

Media and PR Adviser (Engineering & IT)

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