In the Central Highlands region of Queensland, about 10 hours drive from Brisbane lies the rural locality of Gindie. With a population of less than 500, you won’t see much beyond the local primary school and the grain silos. But nestled in this small town on the family farm of Andrew and Jocie Bate, you’ll find SwarmFarm Robotics: the tech startup designing and manufacturing cutting–edge, smart robots for the agriculture industry.
Bigger isn’t always better
Technological progress and success in agriculture has always been marked by an increase in the size of machinery. As demand grew for better returns and higher profitability from farming, so did the size of the tractors and farm machinery. But today, the thinking is changing. With a stronger industry focus on sustainable farming and the constant emergence of newer, smarter technology, companies like SwarmFarm are leading the transition from large machines to smaller, smarter systems.
SwarmFarm’s robots are autonomous platforms that take cutting-edge technology from the robotics industry and deliver a ‘step change’ to agricultural production. Currently, these smart, self–driving machines work together in ‘swarms’ or fleets to undertake tasks like precision application of seed and fertilizer, mowing and slashing of turf, and removal of weeds. But with each new iteration comes a solution to new and existing challenges in the industry. So where did it all start for SwarmFarm?
Growing up, Andrew Bate always had an inquiring mind; often spending his free time playing around with jet engines and anything mechanical on his parent’s property. Like most of the team at SwarmFarm, Andrew and his wife Jocie both grew up on their family’s crop and cattle farms until they united in life and business when they were married in 2005. After several years operating their own farm with a progressive mindset, Andrew started to wonder if they could create their own smarter systems that would go beyond the current limitations of the technology they were using in their day–to–day work.
“I looked at it and thought, what’s the perfect way to grow a crop? Is it with a large machine or is it actually with something that’s quite small, lightweight and can do things more slowly andmore accurately?”
–Andrew Bate, Founder and CEO, SwarmFarm
SwarmFarm was born from this simple concept and in 2012, Andrew and Jocie decided to partner with two universities to build their first prototype –an autonomous weed killing RTV they would test in their own farming operations. Two years and several prototypes later, the first of many SwarmBots was built. Then came the next challenge: commercialising their technology.
Heading to market with Accelerating Commercialisation
In 2015, SwarmFarm sought the support of the Entrepreneurs’ Programme to commercialise the weed–killing machines that were being used by early customers in their region. With an Accelerating Commercialisation grant of just under one million dollars and the support of various investors, SwarmFarm officially released their first generation of technology in 2016.
Five years later, SwarmFarm continues to deliver their robots to businesses across Australia, but with their new technology comes a healthy level of scepticism from those who wonder how autonomous machines will impact the livelihoods of farmers globally. To this, Andrew says that it’s not about automating farming but about building smarter systems from the ground up so the industry can meet global demand for food into the future. Their mission is to empower farmers with new farming techniques and methods that aren’t possible on the back of a tractor, so they can overcome challenges within their local farming systems. He finds that often it isn’t until customers see a ‘swarm’ of machines operating together in a field that they realise the impact this technology can have on their operations.
Growing the family
A working day at SwarmFarm’s headquarters looks a little different to the average day in a tech startup. Within hours of coding new software, developers and engineers are out in the fields, getting their boots dirty, deploying their work on a commercial farm. So if you share a love for farming and want to help change the world with new technology, visit SwarmFarm’s website to see their current vacancies.
In partnership with i4 Connect, the Entrepreneurs’ Programme is proud to support Aussie businesses like SwarmFarm with expert advice and funding through its Accelerating Commercialisation grants. Register for our next Information Session here.