Robots and AI combine for precision future farming platform

A UK agritech startup is developing a complete arable farming system that combines AI and robotics for more precise planting, better yields, and reduced pollution and waste.

A design concept for the Harry robot (Credit: Small Robot Company)

The concept comes from Small Robot Company, a collective of farmers, engineers and scientists hoping to transform the face of agriculture. Replacing bulky equipment like tractors with lightweight robots means the soil isn’t compacted by massive weight from above, and the robots can punch-plant directly into the soil, with no need for ploughing. As well as an environmental benefit, this also allows every seed to be mapped with precision and monitored individually.

“This will entirely change what’s possible on the farm, and how we think about farming,” said Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company and a fourth generation Shropshire farmer. “When we cannot only understand a farmer’s field on a plant by plant basis, but we can also take action at that level, a completely different farming system becomes possible. Farming will be able to produce an abundance of food with minimal negative environmental impacts.”

Small Robot Company uses three robots – Tom, Dick and Harry – to automate the planting and growing process. Tom monitors crops and soil, Dick delivers precision feeding and weeding, and Harry is the precision planting robot. All three report back to Wilma, the AI system that oversees the entire arable operation and helps make decisions regarding crop management and individual plant care. According to the Small Robot Company, the system will cut chemicals and emissions by up to 95 per cent, increase revenues by up to 40 per cent and reduce costs by up to 60 per cent.

“Ultimately, we will be able to employ permaculture techniques at scale – using gardening tactics such as companion planting, but for broadacre crops,” said Watson Jones. “Different crops could be planted alongside each other in the same field, and harvested at different times.”

The platform has been developed in conjunction with a Farmer Advisory Group, consisting of 20 farmers across the UK. A prototype Tom robot is already in field trials on farms across the UK, including the National Trust Wimpole Estate. According to the company, the prototype demonstrates all the core technology needed for the wider robot family, including autonomy, geolocation, obstacle avoidance, navigation and the ability to accurately position objects on a map within 2cm. The platform will be offered via a Farming as a Service (FaaS) model, where farmers will pay a subscription fee per hectare.