By Joseph Flaig
The British start-up recently raised £1.2m — including significant support from farmers — to develop its autonomous Tom, Dick and Harry ‘farmbots.’ Each machine will focus on a different task, using technologies including autonomy, robotic arms and artificial intelligence (AI) to make farm work more efficient and minimise the use of chemicals.
“We are trying to deliver the things you couldn’t do even if you had 100 people. We want to go through the farm on a plant-by-plant basis,” says Joe Allnutt, the firm’s ‘head of robot awesomeness’.
“All of this technology is well established in other areas such as manufacturing but no one has brought it to the very important problem of making sure we have enough food for us all to live on.”
Farmer Sam Watson Jones formed the company with entrepreneur Ben Scott-Robinson.
“We are not a technology business looking to flog widgets to farmers,” says Allnutt. “We were started by a farmer hoping to solve the problems he saw in farming, and also hoping to solve what he sees as a shortfall in the technology offered. I think that is why we are so well supported.”
Tom: monitoring machine
Central to the company’s vision is ‘precision farming’, tending to each plant individually. Such a meticulous process relies on a deep, accurate knowledge of the lie of the land – enter Tom, the first of the company’s machines to get out in the field.
The monitoring machine is the firm’s smallest robot. It trundles around the field at walking pace, taking two or three photos a second. The images are then stitched together and combined with magnetometer data and GPS information accurate to within 2cm. An AI system then analyses the images, separating wheat from weeds and giving the farmer an accurate map of every plant, letting them allocate resources efficiently.
Dick: weeding and feeding
The Small Robot Company might seem a slight misnomer when it comes to Dick and Harry, which share a chassis design. “It is about the size of a small car so it doesn’t feel small, but of course it is tiny in agricultural terms,” says Allnutt. This small size and low weight compared to tractors is key to the firm’s environmental credentials, as it will help prevent soil compaction, which can hit yields and have a negative effect on the wider environment.
Dick is for ‘weeding and feeding’. It will use either precision pesticide spraying or electric weeding to zap unwanted plants, much less energy- and equipment-intensive processes than pulling them from the ground.
Electric weeding creates a “mini lightning strike”, says Allnutt. It has been shown to work with conventional agricultural machinery, and will be introduced by the Small Robot Company over the next few years.
Harry: punch planting
The last of the trio will help farmers move away from the most destructive elements of large-scale agriculture to a less-damaging precision-farming approach, says the company. Harry will plant seeds using ‘punch planting’ – a mechanism to ‘punch’ the seeds into the ground to an exact depth and position in the field.
The innovation could boost yields and help drastically reduce the use of chemicals. It has won an award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult.