This week I spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference, delivering a workshop in the fringe event on the first day of the conference.
The main theme of the conference this year is Embracing Change, and there were a number of interesting perspectives on this articulated at the conference. My own experience is that farmers do, in general, embrace change. However, whilst the pace of change in farming is increasing, it is still too slow. In fact I am worried that there is a growing gap between the speed of positive change that is being made possible by technology in other areas of our lives and the change that is happening on farms. I've spent the last year listening to farmers, and what strikes me above all is that their main concerns, in particular reducing operating profits, stagnating yields, and the impact of farming on the environment, are concerns that farmers have had for multiple generations.
However, despite the gloomy picture, I believe 2018 is a great year to be a farmer. In fact I predict that the next five to ten years will be the best time there has ever been to be a farmer.
Why? Because for the first time technology has advanced enough to be able to find answers to some of these problems that our parents and our grandparents have grappled with throughout their careers. We are on the verge of the next agricultural revolution. It is a revolution which will be led by robotics, as smaller, lighter, autonomous machines will replace big, heavy and expensive tractors for many field operations. But it is a revolution that will ultimately be defined by digitisation and artificial intelligence. These technologies will change farming forever. What is exciting for the farmer, and for the world, is that they will allow food production to increase without compromising the environment. They will improve the profitability of farms, they will increase the efficiency and productivity of farm businesses and they will reduce the negative impacts that farming has on the environment.
Small Robot Company aims to be at the forefront of this revolution, developing a farming system which allows the farmers to take a cereal crop from planting through to harvest without the need to take a manned tractor or sprayer onto the field. We have three robots, Tom (a crop monitoring robot), Dick (a laser weeding and micro-spraying robot) and Harry (a no-till digital planting robot) in development, with commercial trials set to start in the autumn of this year. The robots will be guided by Wilma, our AI driven operating system. Our robots are not for sale, but are instead leased out to farmers on a per hectare basis through a model called Farming as a Service (FaaS).
Visit our website for more details about how our system works - www.smallrobotcompany.com.
Even though this message represents a radical shift in the way we think about and manage our farms and our food production system, the audience in my workshop was hugely enthusiastic. The feeling in the room was not whether it would happen, but how soon could it happen. I’m pleased to say we made some really good contacts with people who can help us to make this a reality.
I was asked an interesting question about whether farmers are culturally ready to take on such a different form of farming. From the more than 100 farmers I have personally spoken to about this project to date, I can honestly say that I do not see this being an issue. Farmers are acutely aware of the long standing problems facing their businesses, and if new technology can help solve these problems and, just as importantly, be made available to them in a way which is low risk and affordable, then they are desperate to be involved.
I came away from the 2018 Oxford Farming Conference more convinced than ever that robotics and artificial intelligence can make a real and lasting difference to my farm and the farms of others and contribute towards digitising one of the last analogue industries. I also came away more convinced than ever that the time for the next farming revolution is now; the technology is ready, the farmers are ready. Let’s make it happen!
If you would like to be involved, please join our rapidly growing community of followers. Sign up to our mailing list via the website to receive our regular updates, volunteer to have a robot come to your farm to help train our AI operating system and look out for news of our upcoming crowdfunding campaign.