Three robots have been given a mission on a field in England: find and zap weeds with electricity before planting seeds in the cleared soil.
Small Robot Company created the robots, which are named Tom, Dick, and Harry, to rid land of unwanted weeds with the least amount of chemicals and heavy machinery.
Since 2017, the company has been developing autonomous weed killers, and in April it launched Tom, its first commercial robot, which is now in use on three UK farms. The other robots are still prototypes that are being tested.
Small Robot declares himself a robot. Tom can scan up to 20 hectares (49 acres) per day, gathering data that Dick, a “crop-care” robot, uses to zap weeds. Then it’s over to robot Harry to sow seeds in the weed-free soil.
Farmers could save 40% on their costs and use up to 95% less chemicals if they use the entire system once it’s up and running, according to the company.
Pesticides worth $38 billion were traded globally in 2018, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Our system allows farmers to wean their depleted, damaged soils off a diet of chemicals,” says Ben Scott-Robinson, Small Robot’s co-founder and CEO.
Small Robot claims to have raised more than £7 million ($9.9 million) in funding. According to Scott-Robinson, the company plans to launch its full robot system by 2023, which will be available as a service for around £400 ($568) per hectare. The monitoring robot is installed first on a farm, with the weeding and planting robots arriving only when the data indicates that they are required.
Small Robot collaborated with RootWave, a UK-based startup, to develop the zapping technology.
“It creates a current that goes through the roots of the plant through the soil and then back up, which completely destroys the weed,” says Scott-Robinson. “We can go to each individual plant that is threatening the crop plants and take it out.”
“It’s not as fast as it would be if you went out to spray the entire field,” he says. “But you have to bear in mind we only have to go into the parts of the field where the weeds are.” Plants that are neutral or beneficial to the crops are left untouched.
This is referred to as “per plant farming” by Small Robot, which is a type of precision agriculture in which each plant is counted and monitored.
Efficiency remains a challenge for Kit Franklin, an agricultural engineering lecturer at Harper Adams University.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the electrical system works,” he tells CNN Business. “But you can cover hundreds of hectares a day with a large-scale sprayer … If we want to go into this really precise weed killing system, we have to realize that there is an output reduction that is very hard to overcome.”
Franklin, on the other hand, believes that if farmers can see a business case for the technology, they will adopt it.
“There’s a realization that farming in an environmentally friendly way is also a way of farming in an efficient way,” he says. “Using less inputs, where and when we need them, is going to save us money and it’s going to be good for the environment and the perception of farmers.”
Small Robot wants to improve soil quality and biodiversity as well as reduce the use of chemicals.
“If you treat a living environment like an industrial process, then you are ignoring the complexity of it,” Scott-Robinson says. “We have to change farming now, otherwise there won’t be anything to farm.”