Presenting the argument that large tractors in crop production are inefficient and environmentally unfriendly, a British agritech start-up company has unveiled its latest robot for planting crops that it says will revolutionise farming.
Based in Shropshire, the Small Robot Company has unveiled its digital planting robot called Harry and previewed an early version of its Wilma Artificial Intelligence interface.
Harry is a prototype of the world’s first digital drilling robot for combinable crops, 1 of 3 precision engineered smart robots developed by the company.
With 3 products currently in its portfolio, the Small Robot Company’s Tom, Dick and Harry robots will feed, seed and weed arable crops autonomously, with no waste. They say this threesome could revolutionise food production and the damage that big machinery creates to the soil and the wider environment.
Harry is a 1.8 metre-square spider-shaped robot, that folds up compactly and unfurls to provide farmers with a driverless, super accurate drill. The Small Robot Company says Harry is able to punch-plants seeds at a uniform depth, making minimal soil disturbance. “He is able to accurately record exactly where he has placed individual seeds, and feeds this data back to the Small Robot Company’s artificial intelligence platform, called Wilma, to produce a per-plant crop map,” it said.
An early version of the interface for Wilma has already been on show this year, but robots Tom and Dick are already in trial and due for development next year, respectively.
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Directed by Wilma, the farmbots will only feed and spray the plants that need it, giving them the perfect levels of nutrients, support as well as, hopefully, says the company, cutting chemicals and emissions by up to 95%.
The Small Robot Company was set up by fourth-generation farmer Sam Watson Jones and entrepreneur Ben Scott-Robinson who both wanted to offer farmers an innovative solution. Inspired by the work of Professor Simon Blackmore, at the National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams University, Sam and Ben came up with the idea for Tom, Dick and Harry.
Our AI-driven operating system will give farmers a more detailed knowledge of their crop and their land
Sam said: “Before we even started working on the technology, we looked at the pain points farmers were facing and realised the old model had to change. Our AI-driven operating system will give farmers a more detailed knowledge of their crop and their land, allowing them to be more efficient and environmentally friendly. This will entirely change what’s possible on the farm, and how we think about farming.”
Trials of the robots are currently ongoing at the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate where the Trust’s food and farming researcher, Felicity Roos, is working. She said: “Big tractors are effective but environmentally damaging and inefficient. Currently, 95% of energy is used ploughing and this is only necessary because the use of heavy machinery compacts the soil. Small Robot Company is building robots that will seed and care for each individual plant in a crop. For farmers the increased efficiency has the potential to increase yields, and reduce input costs and so hopefully increase profits.”
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The Harry prototype has been developed thanks to a prestigious Horizontal Innovation Award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC). “Feeding an estimated extra 2.2 billion people living on planet earth by 2050 is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face in the future,” says Alan Howard, the IET’s design and manufacturing lead. “This brilliant idea from Small Robot Company, with its ingenious application of robotics and automation technologies, could provide a vital and secure source of food to help feed the world.”
The Small Robot Company says small machines can be more efficient and accurate in their roles using precision technologies developed over the last 15 years.