Farms need constant monitoring to ensure that the crops are being watered properly, that the soil contains the right nutrients and that weeds do not overgrow the planting areas. However, using chemicals to kill these weeds is not just costly, but introduces harmful elements to grow cycles.
British agritech startup Small Robot Company (SRC) is looking to help with the weeding process with the development of a robot that the company claims is the first per-plant weeding device.
Called Tom, the robot scans arable crops to detect weeds and a robot weeding prototype, called Dick, zaps individual weeds with an electrical charge, using no chemicals. Pilot projects are slated to begin this fall with customers including Lockerley Estate — where robots are key to its regenerative farming strategy —Waitrose & Partners and the National Trust.
SRC said that up to 95% of chemicals are wasted in current farming and non-chemical weeding will allow for better biodiversity and more nature-friendly farming. The robot will also gather data from multiple sources such as sensors and microphones for birdsong and pollinators to access soil health and biodiversity.
Additionally, the company plans to start 5G pilot projects to see how the next-generation wireless technology can be used to further Tom’s abilities with data gathering and weed elimination.
In the video, SRC shows how the pair of its robots, Tom and Dick, work on a farm at Lockerley Estate where the robots are connected to SRC’s artificial intelligence (AI) engine Wilma to identify and kill individual weeds with electricity. Dick deploys RooWave a non-chemical weeding technology mounted on an igus delta robotic arm to kill the weeds.
Tom can cover 20 hectares per day autonomously, collecting about 6 terabytes of data in an eight hour shift and detecting millions of data points per field. This means Tom could collect information on 12.7 million plants in a 6 hectare field.
The robot can distinguish plant details at submillimeter resolution, with less than 1 mm per pixel resolution on the ground. It is also weather-proof for year-round usage.
Another pilot project involves Tom taking soil samples to assess soil health. Robotic monitoring could provide accurate, repeatable carbon measurement at farm scale and provide accurate carbon sequestration measurement to support the effort to get the U.K’s farming industry to net carbon zero by 2040.
“The U.K. — and U.K. agriculture — have made bold commitments to net zero,” said Sam Watson Jones, president and co-founder of SRC. “Robotics can already take billions of accurate measurements in each field. This will transform the way that farms are able to sequester and cycle carbon, and measure that accurately. The opportunity for UK (and global) agriculture to support the transition towards Net Zero is enormous.”