On the ground with farming's robot revolution
The FT gets hands on with smaller bots that promise to protect soil quality, reduce the use of pesticides and boost agricultural productivity. They could eventually change the industry and the landscape beyond recognition
Produced, filmed and edited by James Sandy
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We're on the verge of a farming robot revolution. Investors poured $700m into agricultural technology in 2017 alone. But are farm bots ready to deliver? We came to Leckford Estate in the south of England to see how one start-up is working to change the face of farming.
So this is Tom, our monitoring robot. At the moment, we're in a trials phase. So Tom is looking at the wheat crop that we have here and gathering data on it, so analysing where the weeds are, looking at the health status of that plant, so looking at any disease issues, nutrient issues. Where he's just taking high quality digital images top down at the moment. And that goes into Wilma, who's our AI.
Wilma's artificial intelligence matches the images to precise GPS data, generating a map that's accurate to within two centimetres. The farmer can then zoom right in on specific plants, potentially isolating problems before they can spread. For Andrew Hoad, the head of Leckford Estate, it's a game changer.
Leckford Estate is a 4,000-acre estate, that's about 1,800 hectares. With such a large area, we can't realistically cover every part of the estate. So having a bit of machinery that is in a field, able to tell us in real time what is going on enables us to be much more responsive and be more precise about what we are doing.
The technology still has a way to go. The Tom prototype struggles to cover some of the farm's more rugged terrain. And in its current form, it can't even go out in the rain. But for Andrew, exploiting the data from Tom and Wilma could mean lower costs and a kinder of impact the environment.
Like any farm, we are facing into higher energy costs. Conventional farming also relies heavily on inputs. And the ability to be able to have very targeted interventions that will reduce the amount of physical things that need to go into the crop - because you've got that visibility of that single plant - will mean that actually there's potentially the opportunity - I think from the research that the Small Robot Company have done - to take out about 60 per cent of the input cost. Now, that's not just a cost thing. That's a really good thing for the environment.
That kind of payoff will only be possible if farmers replace their tractors and combines with a new breed of technology. Smart bots, light and nimble enough to seed, weed, and feed individual plants without damaging others in the same field. For a Small Robot Company, this is the next phase.
Looking at Harry here, you will notice that Harry has the capacity not just to carry a boom for planting, but also another boom underneath for electric weeding, or another boom underneath for some clever way of being able to kill pests, which doesn't need chemicals. We are a starting point to allow all sorts of clever technologies to be applied for arable farmers.
Moving past this starting point will take innovation and funding, both of which may be harder to come by, given the low unit value of the staple crops, like wheat and soy, that this bot is designed for.
Where we're going to really drive the large increases in food production at a sustainable level is going to happen is in arable. And there, unfortunately, there is much less interest because from a start-up perspective, the value is less, which means we've got a much longer journey to be able to get there.
Small Robot Company may still be years from delivering on the full potential of farm bots. But if their bots can replace the heavy machinery of today's large scale farming, they could change the industry and the landscape beyond recognition.