Trundling across uneven soil, a machine about the size of a small dog picks its way through rows of young plants. As it passes each seedling, it glowers at it with an unblinking “eye”, gathering information about its health and maturity, and looking for signs of disease. Equipped with a camera and other sensors to assess attributes like soil quality, this diminutive, insect-shaped robot is Tom – a prototype autonomous farm assistant. It is a glimpse of what the future of farming could look like.
Barriers to new farmers entering the profession, environmental degradation and a growing world population are putting increasing pressure on agriculture to do more with less. But farmers and researchers are working on increasingly innovative high-tech solutions to find ways to produce more food – enough to feed 10 billion by 2050 – while minimising environmental impact.
Robots like Tom are hoped to be a part of the solution. The diminutive buggy is one of three robots being developed by UK-based agricultural technology start-up Small Robot Company. While Tom monitors how the crops are growing, another robot the size of a small car, called Dick, will move through the field to target any weeds that might spring up. The third robot ⎼ called Harry, of course ⎼ will be responsible for planting the seeds in the first place.
“We are aiming for a new era of precision farming where crops are not cared for at the field level, but at the individual plant level,” says Sam Watson Jones, one of the founders of the company. “It is something that is not possible when you have humans doing the work or with big farming machinery that are currently used.”
The company currently has two Tom robots working in the fields of 20 farmers that have signed up to help trial the technology. They have a prototype for Harry and are in the process of building Dick. In the next year they hope to have developed a series of modular toolbars that will be fitted to Dick and Harry so they can be adapted to different tasks in the fields. The firm is also testing a prototype of a central control system that will gather data from the robots, called Wilma. Watson Jones began looking at how robots could help to change farming after noticing the rising costs of machinery on his own family farm in Shropshire. Looking back over 25 years, he noticed that the crop yields from the family land had not changed. Their profits instead were subject to fluctuating crop prices. “At the same time the cost of machinery was going up every year,” he says. “I began talking about it to other farmers and everyone had noticed the same trend. It became obvious to me that the way we were operating had to change if we were not going to eventually go out of business.”
His hopes for a transformation of farming are not unfounded. Through the centuries, innovations and new technologies have not only had a dramatic impact on how crops are grown and the amount of food we can produce, they have also moulded society.