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Beyond the Bale : September 2018
68 ON FARM With wool harvesting being one of the largest annual costs for woolgrowers, and shearers being sometimes hard to find (despite AWI’s training efforts), one of the biggest challenges facing the wool industry – but also one of the greatest opportunities – is robotic shearing. “The robotic systems that were built through the 1980s and early 1990s were amazing for the time and looking back as a roboticist today it’s humbling to think of the progress that was made,” said leading research scientist Associate Professor Rob Fitch from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “But there have been a number of advances in robotics since then.” So, with an industry enjoying fantastic profitability, AWI is undertaking a scoping study in conjunction with the School of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at UTS that aims to develop an understanding of the technical challenges of developing semi-autonomous robotic shearing systems. Through analysis, experimental demonstration, and industry consultation, the project's intended outcomes will provide strategic guidance to both researchers and wool industry representatives on future technical directions for systems development that will improve efficiency, working conditions, and quality in the shearing process. WORKSHOP BRINGS EXPERTS TOGETHER To assist the UTS researchers, AWI brought them together in June with some of the best Australian shearer trainers and shearers at a workshop in Cattai, west of Sydney. Those attending included world record shearer Dwayne Black, and research scientist Associate Professor Rob Fitch from UTS, who played a significant role in developing the self-driving car in the US. Dwayne said there was a lot of positivity from everyone at the workshop, with plenty of thinking outside the square. “I think we really need in the wool industry to accept change and grasp opportunities that might present themselves. There’s potential for improvement in the industry if we open our minds and give it a chance to be more efficient,” Dwayne said. “At the workshop we shared each of our industries’ points of view about what we could achieve. Then we shore some sheep for the robotic guys, so that they could see first- hand what shearers actually do. We explained to them how we hold sheep and use angles and techniques to get around sheep.” The robotics team then had a chance to demonstrate some of their robots – and members of their team were then given the chance to hold the handpiece and do some shearing. “We really got right into it,” said Associate Professor Fitch. “We showed some robots that we brought along with us and got to interact with them. “We had really hands-on sessions where we could work through the process, the challenges. I was able to take my first two blows under expert tutelage – and from there we were able to start to really think beyond tradition and try out some new ideas.” After seeing what robots are capable of and the amazing job shearers do, the discussion quickly turned to how to hold the animal in a safe, repeatable, comfortable manner. “We thought the best hold for a sheep would be under the sheep's brisket and belly. So the sheep is presented walking towards us and then we just lift the sheep off the ground a few inches and it basically hangs over a device where it can be relaxed and comfortable. “Obviously comfort is an important issue for traditional shearing as well – a comfortable animal will sit calmly and you can shear it; an uncomfortable animal becomes a wrestle and you can't shear it. “Then we tried a bit of a pattern on the sheep – obviously using a conventional hand piece and flexi down-tube – taking wool off from the head down to the tail of the sheep on each side, basically like peeling a banana. “It was really good to see the robotics guys’ eyes light up as we did this. The penny drop moment for me was seeing them see that it was possible to build robots to do this. “I think they have no doubt they can replicate what the shearers did to the animal. I'm very confident they can use what they saw and recorded on the day, and transfer that into robotics, quite simply.” As part of the scoping study, UTS researchers are undertaking an analysis of existing robotics technology and off-the-shelf robot hardware that could potentially be applied to shearing. They will then be helping to identify and bridge the gap between robotic technology and the needs of the wool industry. The scoping study is due to end later this year, with its results helping guide future investment in the area. AWI recently brought together some of the best shearers and robotic experts in Australia to help determine whether a robot, equipped with the latest digital technology, will be able to shear a sheep. ROBOTIC SHEARING REVISITED IN THE DIGITAL AGE Shearers and robotic experts examining some of the robotics during the workshop.
In the Shops - September 2018