Meet the Robots Behind the Agri-Revolution

Image credit: iStockphoto/koya79

In the wake of the Brexit split and then the pandemic, U.K. farmers are struggling for labor. This gap is beginning to be filled by a new generation of robots built specifically for agricultural applications.

Behind them is a wave of new robotic startups focused on farming. The Small Robot Company, for example, is based in the regional town of Salisbury and has developed three robots called Tom, Dick, and Harry, each with different applications.

“The overwhelming feedback from farmers is that farming is not working,” the company says.

“Yields are stagnating, machinery costs are rising, and profit is suffering. We are also facing an environmental crisis, with heavy machinery and chemical use playing a key part.”

The company says it is part of the “fourth agricultural revolution” with its approach to what it called “per plant farming,” offered “as a service” similar to most digital solutions in the market.

“To put it simply, your crop will be cared for at a level of detail never previously possible,” the company says. “It will happen autonomously, and it will be done with little or no effort for you.”

The three robots work in combination. The robot called Tom begins the process by mapping the crop area and collecting data on areas with weeds or in need of other remedial preparation.

Then along comes Dick, looking like a spider. He electrocutes weeds and doesn’t use chemicals.

Last is Harry, and his role is to plant individual seeds in precisely drilled holes.

The Small Robot Company is at an early stage, but already it has caught the attention of leading grocery chain Waitrose. At a farm in Hampshire, the team of Tom, Dick, and Harry has enabled a 41% reduction in the use of pesticides and a 32% fall in fertilizers. This has been done alongside crop rotation and agronomy on a farm with has a herd of 1000 sheep.

The company is also an award winner and was announced as a Red Herring Top 100 Europe winner in December last year, an award that recognizes Europe’s leading private companies and innovative startups.

Droids as farmworkers

The Small Robot Company is not the only robotic startup shaking up European agriculture.

Danish brothers Kristian and Jens Warming have developed a robot they call the FarmDroid.

The first model was manufactured in 2018, and the design has been improved through various iterations, with FarmDroids now operating in 18 countries with 250 robots carrying out drilling and weeding duties.

Weighing in at only 800 kilograms, which reduces compaction and soil damage, the FarmDroids are solar-powered and can operate continually for 24 hours. If the weather is too cloudy, an additional battery can be used, which gives up to 12 hours of operation.

“Your crop will be cared for at a level of detail never previously possible. It will happen autonomously, and it will be done with little or no effort for you”

Working at a slow pace of under 1kmh, the FarmDroid covers 6 hectares per day. There is no camera system, with guidance coming through an RTK correction system.

This enables them to create an effective geofence and execute precision weeding within 5 millimeters.

There is also a seeding mechanism that operates from a seeding map and makes sure the robot knows exactly where to place the seeds after creating a hole with a small furrow opener.

Also from Denmark comes the Agrointelli Robotti LR, which is essentially an autonomous tractor unit powered by a diesel engine.

The Robotti can work continuously for up to 60 hours and be fitted with most standard farm equipment.

Robot dog to the rescue

Then there is the robotic dog named Spot, developed in Boston in the U.S. by the Manufacturing Technology Centre and Boston Dynamics.

The robot dog analyzes fruit crops, inspects for quality, ripeness, and disease, and can climb steps and navigate rough terrain that stops other robots.

Spot can carry and power up to 14kg of inspection equipment and can be operated from afar using an intuitive tablet application and built-in stereo cameras.

The robotic canine can also be integrated with a 360-degree camera and site documentation software to reduce the time required to capture data and enhance employee productivity in documenting and managing site progress.

The current cost is USD75,000, although leasing deals can be had. This is much more expensive than most pedigree dogs, although perhaps not as productive.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and the NextGenConnectivity editor. He remains fascinated with how businesses reinvent themselves through digital technology to solve existing issues and change their entire business models. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/koya79