The field of robotics has well and truly taken off in the past few decades, boosted by increasing innovation and a significant drop in the cost of materials.

Last week Harvard University and MIT announced the release of self-assembling robots, capable of transforming themselves, origami style, into fully automated moving machines.

The United States has been leading the way in this area, however in the sector of robotics for agriculture New Zealand is tracking ahead of the curve, according to scientists at Callaghan Innovation.

The leading science research institute has been focusing its attention on mobile robotics in the agriculture and horticulture sectors, with several innovative machines in the market or under development.
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Callaghan Innovation senior business development manager Geoff Bates said the focus on agriculture and horticulture was a good fit for New Zealand, as the country dealt mostly in naturally varying products.

"No two animals are the same, no two kiwifruit are the same, nothing we do and nothing we grow and export, they're all different," Bates said. "For normal manufacturing you're dealing with regular parts manufactured so that they are a specific size and weight and shape, not so with natural products."

Senior research leader Patrick Lim who is leading the robotics research sector, said this had resulted in more complex machines that required specific sensor technology. He said this had given New Zealand an edge in specialist technology in the robotics field.

"We have a lot of opportunity in the area of naturally varying products, like handling of meat portions, meat carcasses, shellfish, etc. We have developed a lot of expertise in those areas," Lim said.

The robotics team had focused on the shellfish and meat industry initially with two-thirds of all New Zealand mussels now opened by an automated machine, and the de-pelting process in the meat industry now almost entirely automated.

The latest adaptations however have been in the development of software architecture for robots capable of harvesting ground crops such as potatoes, asparagus, carrots and spring onions, as well as fruit such as apples, kiwifruit and grapes.

Where these automated machines had previously been designed for a single task, recent development had focused on robots being able to perform multiple tasks, and work on several crops.

According to Bates, it won't be long before these machines would be able to expand into a range of roles including pasture care and checks, with monitoring of nutrient levels and fertiliser treatment. Bates said the goal was to produce more with less.