Farming is a tough business. If you don’t think so, try growing your own food for a year and see how that goes. Over the past several decades, farmers have begun to use ever larger quantities of fertilizers and pesticides — both often derived from petroleum stocks — to boost the amount of crops they can grow, but those products have a downside. Once the get washed into nearby ponds and streams, they pollute the water, which then travels down stream to larger and larger lakes until it reaches the ocean.
Yet crop yields are declining as changes in the Earth’s climate brings drought and/or higher temperatures to the places where most staple crops are grown. To compensate, farmers add even more fertilizers and pesticides to their fields, squeezing their profit margins even further. Now a UK startup called the Small Robot Company is about to change how farming is done. SRC uses two autonomous electric platforms — Tom and Dick — powered by Tesla batteries to gather detailed data about every field, including precisely where weeds are located. Both are controlled by Wilma, an online platform that analyzes the data collected and recommends ways to maximize yields at the individual plant level. [Why Wilma is not called Harry is a mystery.]
Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO of the Small Robot Company, tells The Guardian, “There have been times over the last four years when we thought this day would never actually happen. It turns out that building robots that work in fields to any level of reliability or accuracy is tough.” He says his robots are part of a fourth industrial revolution that uses technology to focus on accuracy, efficiency, and sustainability. “The way farming needs to be done is changing. It isn’t just about producing large quantities of food, it’s also about caring for what happens in the field.”
Tom Plays The Field
The first robot is Tom, a 4-wheeled device that can scan up to 20 hectares (50 acres) of farmland a day, creating up to 6 terabytes of data in the process. That data includes information about each individual plant. It also plots the location of weeds that threaten the harvest. Tom lives in a dedicated shed where it plugs itself in to recharge and transfer its data to Wilma. It is available for commercial use now, with the finishing touches of its AI guidance system about to be added.
Wilma — The Brains Of The Operation
The data collected by Tom is transmitted to Wilma, an AI platform that recognizes which weeds are in the field, analyzes the health of each individual plant, and creates an integrated farm management plan for the farmer. “You can look at the data as it comes in from the field to make decisions which will take into account agronomy, soil science, and market conditions.” SRC says.
Dick — A Weed Zapping Thug
Then there is Dick, the weed assassin which takes instructions from Wilma and sets out to find harmful weeds. Then it zaps them with 8,000 volts of electricity that boils them from the inside out. Not all weeds are harmful. Speedwell is enjoyed by bees and clover fixes nitrogen in the soil. “Neither is a threat to crop growth, so we leave them alone,” Scott-Robinson says.
The part that does the actual zapping was developed by RootWave, which is still fine tuning the technology so that Dick uses just enough power to kill the targeted weed in order to extend battery life. Work is also underway that will enabling the robot to weed as it moves by maintaining a ground connection to the Earth. Another project is taking on a moving target — slugs — by squirting deadly worms on them. [What happens to the worms afterward is not discussed.] It’s the best of all worlds, the company says — increasing yields while greatly reducing the use of harmful chemicals such as glyphosate.
Developed With The Help Of Farmers
Tom, Dick, and Wilma were developed in cooperation with several local farmers. Tom Jewers, who has a 390 hectare (960 acre) farm in Suffolk, tells The Guardian, “We are under constant pressure to use less pesticide but if we can’t do that we need something else. This is as big [a change] as tractors were to horses.”
The new technology is still rather expensive, although Scott-Robinson expects prices to fall once it gains a wider acceptance among farmers. Still, farmers are spending big bucks on pesticides. Craig Livingstone, the farm manager for the Lockerley estate, is concerned about blackgrass, the biggest threat to wheat, the UK’s top crop. “It’s costing the industry a fortune and resistance to herbicides is the number one problem,” he says. “The robot offers us a real chance to stop using artificial inputs.” Tom can analyze six different wavelengths of light to positively identify the troublesome weed so Dick can come along later and blast it. “That is a huge step forward,” he says.
It is possible that government incentives and policy initiatives could help offset some of the high costs of the technologies, just as EV incentives help convince drivers to buy an electric car. After all, there are non-monetary rewards to not polluting the Earth with harmful chemicals that become less and less effective over time.
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