Agriculture is rapidly becoming a high-tech industry, attracting investment, technical professionals and innovators. Advancing technology, empowered by the fourth industrial revolution, is developing the capabilities of farmers and robotics alike.
At the heart of the automated farming phenomenon is the need to significantly increase production yields. The UN estimates the world population will rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050 meaning we need to produce a lot more food. Farmers and the wider agricultural industry are coming under growing pressure to keep up with demand.
Agricultural robots may be a relatively new concept, but they are increasing yields in a myriad of ways. From drones to autonomous tractors to robotic arms, agricultural technology is becoming ever more creative and efficient. For instance, the Ecorobotix is a fully autonomous drone powered by the sun with impressive efficiency. The robot allows ‘smart-weeding’ through its complex camera system that targets and sprays weeds, allowing crops to thrive. Its precision allows the robot to use 90% less herbicide, making it 30% cheaper than traditional treatments. The company aims to produce robots that respect the environment, focus on soil and hydrological resources conservation and using a minimum amount of energy. In doing so, the Ecorobotic aims to provide precise, safe, reliable and affordable robotic solutions that simplify farmers’ work and produce the maximum levels of healthy food.
Another agricultural drone that is gaining attention is the Agribotix. These drones focus on delivering ‘agricultural intelligence’, by monitoring large areas of crops. The drones provide a low-cost tool for farmers to collect crop data over time, or in real-time through aerial photos video, and infrared sensors that can measure the health of crops while in the air. This allows farmers to spot an issue before a whole crop is put at risk, maximising output and allowing modification of methods to constantly improve quality and quantity of yields. The drone system also facilitates soil health, monitors energy usage and facilitates integrated pest management.
Once the crops are ready, there are also a number of robots ready to help farmers collect their yields. For instance, the Energid Citrus Picking System is a fast and efficient harvesting systems capable of picking a fruit every 2 to 3 seconds. Cameras are used to locate fruit which is then picked by the robotic arm. The robot is also cheap to build, making it significantly cheaper than human labour.
For smaller, more delicate fruit, the Agrobot E-Series picks strawberries, one by one. It has twenty-four robotic arms working wirelessly and an advanced AI system, that allows the robots to pick strawberries quickly, whilst also identifying the ripeness of a strawberry in the field.
Although agricultural robots have the potential to fully automate farming, often the cost of installing such machines is prohibitively expensive. As a rule, farmers around the world are often income-poor but asset-rich. Therefore, a new idea whereby farmers essentially rent agricultural robots and pay only for their labour, change the industry irrevocably.
The Small Robot Company offers just this. It believes that big tractors are neither efficient or environmentally friendly and therefore, they have set about designing robots that “will seed and care for each individual plant in the crop”. By only feeding and spraying the plants that need it, each plant is given the perfect levels nutrients and support, with no waste. They estimate that this level of detail allows farmers to be kinder to soil, kinder to the environment, more efficient, more precise and more productive. They estimate that a farmer can increase revenues by up to 40% while reducing costs by up to 60%.
The crucial difference to their proposition is that they are offering a rental system. Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, explains: “If we can deliver a healthy crop at the end of the year, and for that we charge a certain amount per hectare, there is no upfront money, the farmer doesn’t have to worry about how reliable the robots are, they just pay per hectare. At the end of it all, the risk is on us.”
He said the main driver behind the project is that farming as an industry, “is broken”. The amount of chemicals like fertiliser wasted has made the production costs of arable farming increase, while the profit margins remain the same.
Currently at Small Robot Company, the system consists of, Tom (a crop and soil monitoring robot), Dick (a precision spraying and laser weeding robot), Harry (a precision drilling and planting robot), and Wilma (the operating system), each with their own roles but designed to work in tandem. At present, prototype Tom is complete with the other robots being constructed. The next step is for 20 farms across Britain to test the system, before it is rolled out internationally.
Scott-Robinson concluded: “In the next five years we will be in market, we will be working on farms, we hopefully will be getting to our target which is 5% of the arable market in the UK and working in other markets like Canada and Australia. Our focus is on getting this robotic farming strategy showing real benefits to farming, livelihood and the environment.”