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The rise of the robot farmers

14/12/2018
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No, that’s not the title of a new agriculturally-focused horror film. It’s the news that supermarket Waitrose has entered into an agreement with the Small Robot Company to begin a three-year trial to test out a trio of miniature farm robots to boost yields, improve soil health and increase the efficiency of British farms.
Supermarket chain Waitrose has started a three-year trial which will see robots deployed across one of its farms.
(Image via the Small Robot Company).

The robots, named Tom, Dick and Harry, will be trialled at Waitrose’s farm in Leckford, Hampshire. The farm, which grows produce such as mushrooms, rapeseed, apples and other products for Waitrose’s supermarket stores, has set aside a one-hectare wheat field for the robotics trial.

The field trial will start with ‘Tom’, which is fitted with cameras and will roll over the field to gather topographical data and obtain a plant-by-plant view of the field. Once Tom has collected this data the Small Robot Company will then develop its machine learning in a variety of scenarios, such as teaching the robots to differentiate between weeds and terrain. The trial will also be used by Waitrose’s own innovation team to gather valuable insights in how productivity could be improved on the farm at Leckford.
Waitrose's robotic trial focuses on the use of three robots- Tom, Dick and Harry.
(Image via the Small Robot Company).

The farming sector is currently under pressure with production costs rising by almost 8 per cent per year. It is hoped that introducing new technologies such as these small robots will alleviate this pressure and improve returns. The team behind the robots claim that this type of innovation ‘has the potential to increase revenues by up to 40 per cent and lower costs by as much as 60 per cent’.

Another name to remember from the robotic trial is ‘Wilma’. This is an AI system which will be created using the field data gathered by Tom. Once fully developed, Wilma will enable the three robots to farm completely autonomously without any human guidance or interference. Of the other two robots, Dick will be a precision weeding robot which will use machine vision to differentiate between weeds and crops- and killing the weeds with lasers. Harry on the other hand will be a digital planting robot. Using a punch-plant method, Harry will plant seeds individually in the ground at a uniform depth, creating a plant level map showing the exact location of each seed.
With the cost of farming production continuing to rise it is hoped that the use of robots will help improve productivity and increase returns.
(Image via the Small Robot Company).

Commenting on the introducing of robots to the Leckford Farm, Andrew Hoad, Partner & Head of the Leckford Estate, said:

“We are very excited to trial Tom, Dick and Harry at the Leckford Estate. The Waitrose & Partners farm has a long history in producing a wide variety of high quality crops. We work hard to farm in harmony with the environment and our vision for sustainable farming is aligned to what the Small Robot Company is trying to achieve. This new technology could be revolutionary for British farming. It is not designed to replace human labour but instead boost productivity and increase accuracy, freeing up the agricultural workforce to focus on other important tasks. We want to be at the forefront of this, and ensure we leave our soils and environment in great shape for future generations”.

If the three-year trial proves successful, farms across Britain could eventually be run by hundreds of Toms, Dicks and Harrys… 
Tags: Engineering
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The rise of the robot farmers - Time to read 3 min
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