For a long time farming has been a wasteful, polluting necessity. We’ve needed to grow crops, but the technology available has led to an unsustainable level of environmental damage. Small Robot Company aims to change this. They’re developing a trio of farmbots that could revolutionise the way in which technology is used in food production. Their robots are so promising, they’ve already won awards.
Small Robot Company was launched in November 2017 by a small team of robotics experts, service designers, techies, and farmers who were determined to answer the challenge being faced by the farming industry: how do we provide 70% more food for the world’s growing population by 2050 without destroying the planet in the process? Their solution has been to create a group of small, precise and efficient robots. These robots are able to plant, feed and weed arable crops, avoiding the wastefulness found in modern industrial scale farming.
The future of #farming is small #robots. Some pretty cool #AgriTech coming from the @smallrobotco, especially the Farming as a Service (FaaS) option. An excellent example of #Industry40 UK innovation! #Agriculture #AI #Robotics #T4GSmallRobot https://t.co/Hcqjn9remq pic.twitter.com/HrLstmuMSM
— Fourth Industrial Revolution (@4th_Ind_Rev) July 11, 2018
It is thought that current methods of farming cost the world economy about £80bn a year. The costs for farmers have doubled over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, prices and yields have remained largely unchanged. Small Robot Company aims to make farms more profitable, by increasing yield and efficiency through the use of small robots instead of tractors. These farmbots will be both more precise and more productive than tractors.
Modern farming methods also have a number environmental affects that the Small Robot Company robots will put an end to. Current arable methods, particularly ploughing and blanket spraying, are extremely harmful to the environment. Ploughing causes a loss of soil quality, as it destroys the natural build up of organic matter that nourishes the soil, whilst treating the whole of a field in the same way leads to an inevitable overuse of chemicals. With precision robots at work on farms there will be 90% less pesticides and up to 90% less fertiliser used. Energy usage and CO2 levels are also reduced by 95%.
We are re-imagining farming in the robotic age. We want to revolutionise the way that food is produced, reducing its terrible cost on the environment.
Ben Scott-Robinson, Small Robot Company co-founder.
The trio of robots are called Tom, Dick and Harry, and they’re controlled by an AI ‘nervous system’ named Wilma that provides a granular digital view of the farm. Through Wilma, the robots all know where each and every plant in a field is situated, whilst the AI knows what to plant, when and where. Each robot has its own set of tasks for different stages of the farming process. Tom is the crop and soil monitoring robot. He trundles constantly around the farm, checking on the quality of the soil and the state of the crop. His findings are reported to Wilma, and they’re automatically analysed using data and advice from the world’s leading agronomists and the AHDB (the UK Government Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board). This information is then turned into instructions for Dick and Harry. Dick is the precision spraying and laser weeding robot. He’s sent out when there are weeds to zap, plants to feed, or bugs to spray. Harry is the precision drilling and planting robot. He plants the crops with no ploughing and creates a digital map of each plant’s position.
The robots will treat each plant in a field individually, depending on its specific needs. They’ll only feed and spray those plants that actually need it, giving them the perfect levels of nutrients and support, with no waste. In addition to this, the robots use lasers to kill weeds, further reducing the amount of harmful chemicals in use on the fields. Ultimately, the whole process will be automated, leaving farmers more time in which to manage other tasks on the farm.
Simply put, it’s the ability to apply permaculture techniques at scale. It’s the ultimate sustainable farming model. Farming can now create a world where there is an abundance of food which has been produced with minimal negative environmental impacts.
Sam Watson Jones, co-founder and fourth generation farmer.
Small Robot Company might not yet be a year old, but they’re already drawing attention. They were the winner in the BT Connected Society category of the 2018 AgilityNet Tech4Good Awards, with the positive social impact and the environmental benefits of their sustainable robotics technology. They also recently won a prestigious Horizontal Innovation™ Award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), which granted them £50,000 to develop its Harry digital planting robot prototype technology. A further £50,000 was raised through an Indiegogo campaign.
The first prototype robot has now been built and is successfully working, and field trials are currently in progress in farms in Shropshire and Hampshire. Small Robot Company have customers lined up to make use of their technology in commercial trials from October 2018. Through their Farming as a Service (FaaS) model, farmers will be able to make the most of this latest technology without ever having to directly purchase robots of their own. Only Tom, the soil monitoring robot, is permanently stationed on the farm. Dick and Harry will turn up only when Wilma informs them that they’re needed, and they’ll be removed again afterwards.
The thought of robots at work on farms might once have been viewed more as science fiction than fact, but it’s a futuristic vision that is now becoming reality.
If you’d like to know more about Small Robot Company and their farmbots, you can check out their website. You can also find them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. If you’re interested in the science behind robots on farms, here’s a video from IntoBiology of Professor Simon Blackmore, a leading expert on farming with robots, speaking at the 2017 Gatsby Plant Science Summer School.