Agtech: Waitrose to trial autonomous farming robots
autonomous farming robot
Credit: Small Robot Company

Agtech: Waitrose to trial autonomous farming robots

UK supermarket chain Waitrose is planning to deploy autonomous robots, from Shropshire-based robotics start-up Small Robot Company, to farm its Leckford Estate.

The Telegraph reports that the three-year trial, will see three types of robot, known as Tom, Dick and Harry, analyse, plant and weed crops at the 4,000 acre farm near Stockbridge, Hampshire.

Tom handles crop and soil monitoring, Dick is responsible for precision spraying and laser weeding, while Harry takes care of precision drilling and planting.

The robots use AI to scan thousands of pictures of a specific field and then use the images to identify weeds and optimise seed planting. Farmers at the estate believe the technology will greatly reduce costs and improve crop yields, as well as offer massive environmental benefits.

Andrew Hoad, the head farmer on the Leckford Estate, said the project was “hugely exciting” and was a necessary step to improve the economics of UK farming in post-Brexit Britain.

The months ahead are going to be challenging for everyone. Great innovation sometimes comes out of complex challenges.

Smart Farming with AI

Using artificial intelligence, IoT and cloud technologies, Small Robot Company’s robots work alongside an AI system, dubbed Wilma, to digitise the field and provide a granular digital view of the farm.

The robots will only feed and spray the plants that need it, giving them the perfect levels of nutrients and support, with no waste. The company believes this can reduce chemical usage in arable farming by up to 95 percent.

Small Robot Company offers its robots through a Farming as a Service (FaaS) model, which is both a hardware and a software service for farmers. Farmers pay a per hectare subscription fee for a robotic hardware service which digitises the farm and delivers crop care at per-plant precision.

Planting the seed

Field trials are currently in progress on 20 farms across the United Kingdom, including the National Trust Wimpole Estate.

Waitrose plans to eventually employ the robots to assist in the production of rapeseed, used in its canola oil products.

Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company and a fourth-generation Shropshire farmer, is confident in the start-up’s potential:

“We’re developing our technology at phenomenal pace. Just one year on from our foundation, we are already geared up to deliver early prototypes for trial in 2019.

This will entirely change what’s possible on the farm, and how we think about farming. When we can not only understand a farmer’s field on a plant by plant basis, but we can also take action at that level, a completely different farming system becomes possible.

“Farming will be able to produce an abundance of food with minimal negative environmental impacts.”

Internet of Business says

Small Robot Company has quickly made an impression on the Agtech industry, with three prototype robots and initial artificial intelligence achieved within one year of launch.

Earlier this year the start-up won the Best Use of Technology Category at The Drum Social Purpose Awards on account of the positive social impact and environmental benefits of its technology.

With noteworthy partnerships with the National Trust and Waitrose under its belt, the company now has the opportunity to prove its technology at scale.

If successful, Small Robot Company will be well placed to offer innovation to farmers looking to improve yields and reduce waste, in a post-Brexit environment that may make it difficult to employ the European workers upon which a large part of UK arable farming depends.

The remote monitoring of crops is already relatively common and the benefits clearly established, as our recent interview with AT&T’s Chris Penrose highlights. However, the automation of weeding, fertilising, and planting goes well beyond this, building on the insights of IoT – the digitatisation of fields – and acting on that information on a per plant basis.

In the US, Iron Ox recently launched what it claims in the world’s first fully-autonomous farm. It’s an impressive window into what the future of indoor farming might look like.

However, the more achievable economics of Small Robot Company’s approach makes it more interesting in the short-term. It’s easy to imagine such robots being used on arable farms across the UK, particularly given the start-up’s farming-as-a-service model.