By Mark Fairlie.
The “world’s first” farming robot prototype took centre stage at the Agri-Tech East REAP Conference last week.
The showstopper “Harry” is just one of a wide range of advanced technologies proposed to revolutionise the agriculture sector. From land surveying and livestock monitoring drones to GPS-guided tractors, more UK farms than ever are improving their efficiency and productivity with agri-tech.
The Small Robot Company
As unveiled at last week’s event, “Harry”, from the Small Robot Company, is a spider-shaped smart robot designed to accurately plant seeds using a driverless drill. This automation ensures each individual seed is placed at a uniform depth with minimal disturbance to the soil; meaning crops are more likely to survive.
The ground-breaking robot records and maps exactly where each seed is placed using the company’s artificial intelligence platform, Wilma. Wilma is also able to distinguish the difference between “wheat” and “non-wheat”; allowing farmers to accurately spray and farm patches of land.
Harry is, however, just one of the Small Robot Company’s three precision-engineered farming robots.
“Tom” is already in the trial stages of development, and is currently being tested on real farms across the UK to monitor individual plants in a field. The machine then analyses each plant to identify whether it is a crop or a weed; feeding the data back to the AI to be digitally mapped.
This is where “Dick”, the third robot, is used to accurately target these plants and weeds for concentrated micro-spraying and mechanical weeding using electricity and lasers.
Increasing customisation of the machine means the firm’s “robotic workhorse”, Jack, can be transformed into both Dick and Harry depending on the end user’s needs.
Agri-tech innovation on the rise
The Small Robot Company was co-founded by experienced entrepreneur Ben Scott-Robinson and fourth-generation farmer Sam Watson-Jones.
Watson-Jones has said the firm expects Harry to be ready for commercial use within the next eighteen months to three years, noting just how quickly these new technologies are advancing.
“This stuff has moved way beyond some kind of fevered fantasy of the future of farming,” he added. “For years it was talked about as a vision for 2050. But it really won’t take that long. The pace of change is very rapid.”
Head of Agriculture at Barclays, Mark Suthern, has said that the bank has begun supporting start-ups that are developing agri-tech in order to drive innovation in farming.
“Agri-tech is thriving in the UK and future innovations are likely to help address many of the issues that the farming industry faces today,” he said.
“Our new dedicated agri-tech team is ideally placed to help start-ups scale and grow and connect them with the farming community.”
Why are developments in Agri-Tech necessary?
While agriculture has something of a reputation for being stuck in the past, it has been among the first industries to embrace commercial drone use and autonomous vehicles.
These new technological advancements could mean farmers achieve greater crop yields while reducing their impact on the environment.
The Small Robot Company’s other co-founder, Ben Scott-Robinson, has stressed the increasing costs of farming over the last 30 years, while revenues and yields remain static; resulting in many arable farms going out of business.
“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” in order to develop the tech the sector really needed.
A 2017 government report found that greenhouse gases from the agriculture sector accounted for as much as 10% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The Small Robot Company claim their machines could cut chemicals and carbon emissions by up 95% while increasing farm revenues 40% and cutting operational costs by up to 60%.