Agriculture has a reputation of being stuck in the past. In reality, for farmers, their workplaces are a fertile testbed for innovative technology – they were among the first to embrace commercial drone use, and autonomous vehicles that could work effectively (and safely) in confined areas of farmland. Among the latest developments in agri-tech are small, farming robots that can improve crop yield and reduce farming’s impact on the environment.
Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of the Bristol-based Small Robot Company, says the costs of farming have increased in the last 30 years, even as the revenues and yields have stayed the same. Together with Sam Watson-Jones, a farmer and co-founder of the Small Robot Company, they are attempting to change the machines farmers use. “We travelled around the UK for six months, talking to farmers about what they wanted,” Scott-Robinson explains. ”We would ask about what they were thinking about technology, what their problems were, and what their ideas were.”
At the moment, many arable farms are going out of business, as costs increase without significant changes in revenue or yields. One significant extra cost is investment in tractors. Traditional heavy tractors are key pieces of equipment for the majority of farms, but one of the side effects of such machinery is that they crush the soil and damage the environment, which causes compaction of the earth. Also, fertilisers and chemicals are sprayed across swathes of land, even though not every plant in a single field may be the same.
The Small Robot Company found that many farmers wanted to change their methods, but didn’t have the money or the technical know-how. So, they decided to design a system of farming which worked for the plants, rather than trying to fit around the machinery. What they eventually created, with the help of PhD students at the University of Bristol, was a “robotic workhorse” named Jack, three metres tall. Weighing 250 kilos, Jack is used as a ‘base’ robot which can be modified with booms.
Customisation of the robot allows it to complete different tasks. The base robot Jack, which wave unveiled at WIRED Live, can be transformed into Dick and Harry. The seeding boom, which can place seeds in the ground at the optimal spacing and depth, is three metres in length and makes the robot “Harry”.
However, by adding a non-chemical weeding or spraying boom onto Jack, this makes the robot “Dick”. The Small Robot Company is currently in the process of developing Dick, which is a crop care boom that can use electricity and lasers to kill weeds, as opposed to herbicides. While the proof of concept exists, it has not yet been used on farm land. However, SRC have developed the boom for Harry, which can place seeds in the ground, at the right spacing and depth,allowIng them to grow effectively, and is waiting for patent approval.
But how does the company plan to make money? The co-founders say they aren’t going to tell the bots, but plan to provide them as a service through a subscription fee.
Rachel, the prototype for Tom, a monitoring robot, has made it possible to get a plant by plant view of the fields, which enables digitisation. Rachael is quite small (50 x 60 x 40 cm), weighing around five kilos and it’s fitted with cameras – it runs backwards and forwards, over plots of land and collects data about the plants present. This are then converted into data and instructions for farmers, who find out more about their plants, as well as what needs to be done to increase their yields.
Traditional tractors can weigh up to 31 tonnes, and so a robot like Jack is barely a fraction of the size. A more compact tractor, or farming robot, will have less of a damaging effect on the land that it works on. However, it is likely not to be as robust and not be able to travel as quickly across large swathes of land.
To aid this process, Small Robot Company has developed an artificial intelligence system, Wilma, which is able to distinguish “wheat” from “non-wheat”. While it has been trained on data collected by Rachael. Using the guidance of Wilma, robots also provided by Small Robot Company would be able to spray and farm patches of land.
The company’s own figures claim that Small Robot Company could cut chemicals and emissions by 95 per cent, increase revenues by up to 40 per cent and reduce costs up to 60 per cent. “We worked with Harper Adams at the University of the North West of England, and we figured out the cost savings through chemicals, fertiliser, the like,” adds Scott-Robinson. “We’re not allowing a runoff of chemicals into the soil, or letting the soil be washed away, so that keeps the soil in better condition for future farmers.”
If successful, this new approach would form an alternative to current methods of farming, which often involves plowing large patches of land, such as a whole crop field. A government report from 2017 found that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture were 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. Out of that, around 7.2 metric tonnes of CO2 were released through the agricultural sector.
Currently, Small Robot Company has filed several patents for its farmbots and it is running some small tests with farmers. However, these robots and add-ons won’t be commercially ready for use until 2021.