Digitising The Field
Ditching tractors for robots will make farming less polluting and more profitable — and it doesn’t have to take farmers’ jobs.
“Farming should be about feeding the world,” says Sam Watson-Jones, a fourth-generation farmer. “But the world’s population is growing and the crops we are producing are not increasing in yield.”
Farming, as Watson-Jones puts it, has got problems. Small farmers are going out of business, while their methods are exacting a terrible cost on the environment. In the UK alone, one-million tonnes of herbicide and fungicides are sprayed onto crops every year, much of which goes into the soil and is washed out into water systems where it has a catastrophic effect on biodiversity. Farmers use 95 percent of their energy on ploughing, which crushes the worms and soil, resulting in lower yields. Equipment costs have gone up by an estimated 80 percent over the last 25 years, whereas the amount of money farmers make has barely increased.
If agriculture is going to feed the world and its extra two-billion inhabitants between now and 2050, farmers will need to provide 70 percent more food by then. They will have to be more environmentally friendly to keep up with regulation and they won’t be able to use any more land because, as the population grows, that land will be needed for people.
So, what is the answer?
Robots, of course, says Ben Scott-Robinson, who, together with Watson-Jones, founded The Small Robot Company, a Shropshire-based agri-tech start-up. The company has prototyped three robots called Tom, Dick and Harry. The robots are let out as a service to farmers as and when they need them, rather than having to buy them.
Harry takes care of the planting, placing seeds individually and specifically in the ground and then creating a digital ‘crop map’ that the others can refer to. Weighing in at 200kg, his relative lightness — compared to a 20-tonne tractor or plough — avoids compacting the earth. Next up is Tom, who monitors each growing plant, keeping track of its health and development. Dick’s job is to micro-spray every leaf with fertiliser or chemicals to help them thrive, to put herbicide directly onto the roots and to burn weeds out of the ground.
The robots have been developed with farmers in mind, says Scott-Robinson. “Certainly, in the UK, farmers tend to have quite strong accents,” he says, which is why the trio can pick up instructions from expressions without needing to use voice recognition. They are compactable enough to fit into a small van or horse carrier. They can plant and tend seeds, day and night, rain or shine.
The biggest advantage in using robots is that you don’t need to own the machinery. The Small Robot Company leases its robots out when the farmers need them, during relevant intervals throughout the year. If the machines break, The Small Robot Company fixes them. Farmers don’t take on the overheads.
“This leasing system is crucial,” says Scott-Robinson. “It allows farmers to adopt this technology without fear, and a little bit at a time. It also means that it doesn’t matter what the size of the farm is, it could be a vast farm in Europe or a tiny one in Shropshire.” The cost is £600 per-hectare to hire the three robots and Wilma, the central operating system which extracts the information from the robots to help farmers make decisions.
Naturally, the 100-odd farmers the company interviewed raised a few concerns: first and foremost, that robots will take jobs from millions of people who can’t afford to lose them. These fears are justified. The power of AI is focused in a very few hands.
But Scott-Robinson says this does not have to be the case. Removing the need for tractors and ploughs will give back time to farmers to allow them to diversify into other things. To this end The Small Robot Company is funding an initiative called Bread Not Wheat.
“We believe that robotic farming will allow farmers to explore alternative ways of monetising their farm. We want to support farmers with marketing, manufacture and sales if they decide to produce products from their crop,” says Scott-Robinson. “So, instead of just selling wheat as a commodity on the global market, they can use that wheat to produce ‘robot-farmed’ bread —or beer, or gin, or even whiskey — and sell it,” he adds.
Not only will this increase potential revenues from a crop, it will also help diversify the types of jobs in their farm business, encouraging young people to stay in the countryside and diversifying the rural economy, reckons Scott-Robinson.
Inevitably there will be seasoned farm-hands who will find the idea of brewing artisan beers and whiskies hard to swallow.
But Scott-Robinson points out that they probably aren’t the target market for robot farming. “Not until the robots have proved themselves, anyway.”
In addition, the group is creating a Robotics for Farming Traineeship, which aims to take rural youth not going to university and give them a course that explores all sides of robotics and AI, and how it applies to farming.
This eight-week course is being developed in conjunction with the CEMAST technical college in Fareham, Hampshire, with the aim of providing disenfranchised teenagers with a route into robotics, computer science, product design and the future of farming.
The Small Robot Company has already drawn a waiting list of 30 farmers who have agreed to prepay for the service, another 100 have signed letters of intent. It has built the Tom prototype and is developing the Harry planting mechanism with the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. The company is looking to fully launch in 2021.
"We are building our service over the next three years, however we will be rolling out the individual robots to our initial customers (who have prepaid for the service) prior to that," says Scott-Robinson.
“Our founding ethos is that we are building a robotic service as part of the rural economy, not imposing our service on it,” says Scott-Robinson. “We’re working with the people who need it to create a product that works.”
And, given the choice, people eventually buy things that make their life better.