At Burlington Berries, about 40 minutes from Launceston, in rural Tasmania in Australia, Joao dos Santos watches what appears to be a large mechanical dog making its way between rows of strawberries.
It moves along the tunnels of fruit, its arm working tirelessly amongst the foliage. Dozens of cameras built into the machine take 360-degree images of the strawberries, as it decides which ones to pick according to mass, ripeness, and quality.
dos Santos squints into an iPad, checking for faults like damaged or missed fruit. “The whole system is connected to the internet, so we can monitor the performance of the robot through the tablet,” he explains.
He is from Timor-Leste and has been in Tasmania for five months under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, which allows eligible Australian businesses to hire workers from nine Pacific islands and Timor-Leste when there are not enough local workers available. Through the scheme, businesses can recruit workers for seasonal jobs for up to nine months or for longer-term roles for between one and four years in unskilled, low-skilled, and semi-skilled positions.
dos Santos started at Burlington Berries as a raspberry picker but soon joined the robot team as a supervisor. For him, being on the cutting edge of digital farming is an exciting opportunity. “In Timor-Leste, the agricultural system is still really traditional and technology like this is very new for us, so working with robots for the first time is something I’m very excited about.”
The robots are part of a collaboration between Burlington Berries and a UK-based start-up, Dogtooth Technologies, which is working to find a solution to labour shortages during harvest seasons. In Tasmania. The trial began in 2017 with just five robots but has now grown to 16.
Eva Thilderkvist, Site Manager at Burlington Berries for Dogtooth Technologies, has been training a team of three Timorese workers to supervise, maintain, and operate the robots. She notes that despite some initial language barriers, the PALM scheme workers were quick to pick up the necessary skills.
“Before we put them in the field, we allowed the Timorese workers to walk with the robots, like taking a dog for a walk, so they could get used to how the robots moved. Now some members of the team are happy to drive two at a time.”
In the morning, dos Santos and his crew take the robots out of the charging containers, disconnect them from the charger, and take them into the field. They use the tablets to connect them to the wi-fi and the robots can then move autonomously, while the workers assess their performance through the tablets.
“Together with Joao we built a wi-fi network, so all the robots, all the devices, anything connected to that network can talk to each other,” Thilderkvist explains. “The team has figured it all out themselves, so not only can I go into the office and watch what the robots are doing remotely, because it all gets uploaded to the cloud, but I can also talk back.”
Via the technology, Thilderkvist can see exactly how many berries the robots have picked. If they’re missing berries, she can reach out to supervisor team and let them know that they need to be checked and report back on any issues.
“He might say that the picking tongs have broken, for example, and they can then replace that. This is another thing that the team has learned to do, they can mechanically change out certain components on the robots that we call consumables, that is components that sometimes break that we can replace.”
Learning New Digital Skills While Supporting their Families
For dos Santos and the other Timorese workers operating the berry picking robots, the PALM scheme is not only providing an opportunity to learn new digital skills, but it’s also helping support their families back home.
“For me, my focus is on my children’s study and school,” dos Santos says. “I have five kids. My first daughter is 21 years old and is studying political science and international relations at university in Portugal. She really needs a lot of money each month, so I’m able to support her.” His second daughter is also at university, studying to be a doctor in Timor-Leste.
“This program is really helping people.” In Timor-Leste where the minimum wage is about US$90 a month and the cost of living is high, the increased wages provide a critical opportunity for Timorese people looking for sustainable work. “I hope more people from Timor-Leste can come and work in Australia,” he says.
The PALM scheme is managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations with end-to-end support provided by the PLF. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.