Australian Wool Innovation has cast a global net and put up to $3 million on the table to find a way to remove weakened wool from sheep as it tries to find a “robust” alternative to traditional shearing. The woolgrower-funded group this month launched a world-wide Wool Bioharvesting Request for Proposals, with the hope it would attract interest from engineering companies, universities, start-ups and other organisations. An indicative budget of $50,000 to $3 million has been set out for a maximum of three years. While shearing is embedded in the hearts and minds of Australians, a desperate shortage of shearers has pushed AWI and the $3 billion wool industry to look for another way to harvest wool. AWI teamed up with the University of Adelaide in July last year, funnelling $1.4 million into a three-year project to investigate a new way of biologically harvesting wool produce a weak point in the fibre so it can be removed without shearing. Its success relying on one simple ingredient — corn protein — injected into sheep to weaken the base of the wool fibre. With AWI confident in that technology, it is now looking to bankroll further ways to separate the weakened wool from the sheep. AWI chair Jock Laurie said industry needed “practical, cost effective and efficient” alternatives to traditional shearing. “Due to the competitive labour market and the continual upwards spiral of shearing costs, the importance of providing options for woolgrowers about how they can harvest their wool in the future is critical,” Mr Laurie said. “Having options to control some of those factors is vital to the sustainability of the industry going forward. “That is why we are pursuing and investing in this exciting technology so heavily.” AWI wants to find a solution that does enables the fleece to remain on sheep, without the need for nets, while new wool grows. It would then be removed once the regrowth zone is long enough to protect the animal from hypothermia and sunburn. The protein weakens growing wool fibres to a tensile strength of about 13 Newtons per kilotex, enabling harvesting with “plucking”. The ROP — which includes an explanation of sheep wool harvesting — explains the need for a new device to “apply force to separate the wool from the body of the sheep”. “However, the device will not require the wool to be cut as per a conventional comb and cutter which should make the engineering challenge of automated/robotic wool harvesting less complex,” it reads. The ROP also pours water on efforts to create a fully robotic shearing system to automate the shearing process, saying it was an “extremely complex engineering challenge” due to the use of sharp cutters on moving animals with “anatomical obstacles”. However, industry remains hopeful robotics could play an important part in removing fleeces from sheep treated with the bioharvesting protein through a “plucking” motion. A similar effort in the 1990s led to the creation of the Bioclip system with sheep dressed in nets used to hold loose wool in place and left on for several days. The company behind the system was put into administration in 2017 after sales were suspended in 2013 after a lack of support. Project proposals could be in the form of a handpiece for manual wool removal through to a more comprehensive, fully-automated system that addresses all or part of the sheep and wool handling process. This includes sheep delivery, sheep catch to sheep positioning, sheep restraint and release, weakened wool removal, in-shed wool processing and wool pressing and baling into different collection lines. Proposals are due by Friday, December 22, with successful applicants expected to be announced in late January.