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Growbots promise to transform Australian agriculture

A robot nicknamed the "Ladybird" automatically sprays herbicides and fertilizers.(Photo courtesy of the University of Sydney's Australian Center for Field Robotics)

SYDNEY -- Australia is 20 times the size of Japan, but has just a fifth of its population. To make use of this vast land for large-scale agriculture and mining, the support of robotics will be increasingly important. That is why, in 1997, the University of Sydney created the Australian Center for Field Robotics -- home to 120 researchers engaged in such fields as computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, and math. Few institutions match the scale of the center's operations in field robotics, the study of robotics for outdoor use.  

The largest issue the center is tackling right now is the use of automation to cut labor costs. "Australia is a big place, we export about 70% of agriculture, and labor costs are very expensive, and availability is short, so we have to focus a lot on automation," said Professor Salah Sukkarieh, the center's director of research and innovation. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Australia's minimum wage is the world's third highest after Luxembourg and France, and 50% higher than the U.S. minimum wage. The intense heat that stretches over vast expanses of dry land also makes for labor shortages due to the harsh working conditions.

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