We are called Small Robot Company so it goes without saying that we are excited about developing robots.
Farmers in the UK and across the world are excited too. We have a group of twenty UK based farmers who are signed up as our development partners and as our first customers. In our group there is a huge variation of farm size, field size, soil type, farm location and current investment in technology. The one thing that connects all of these farmers is their feeling that farming needs to be fixed and their bravery in wanting to be part of the solution.
Robots are a genuinely exciting solution for some of the problems facing farmers. Our farmers have highlighted that existing farm machinery is too expensive; tractors and implements can easily increase by 5-10% in cost every year but they do not add 5-10% in revenue to the farmer.
The revenue will generally remain the same as it did the year before, so the farmer has paid a huge amount to effectively reduce their profits. The second major concern amongst our farmers is the weight of farm machinery; it limits the number of days on which we are able to operate in our fields and it damages the soil through compaction, which in turn requires remedial cultivation work, which in turn damages the soil by killing worms and beneficial microbiota and so a downward spiral of soil health is enabled.
The final concern amongst our farmers is that existing machinery is inaccurate. We have designed our tractors and our sprayers around limiting the amount of time that a human operator is required to sit in the seat, but as a result we have sacrificed the accuracy that is possible with today’s technology. We have also not progressed our understanding of our soils by anything like as much as we might have done. We have wasted huge amounts of fertiliser, causing an enormous impact on our environment and we have reduced the efficacy of the small number of chemicals we are still allowed to use on crops.
This is why robots are so exciting. They immediately and directly address the current issues faced by farmers. They will be cheaper, they will be lighter and they will be more accurate. Our focus over the next 24 - 36 months is on developing the ability to, not only gather data at the plant level in commercial wheat crops, but also to take action at that level through non-chemical weeding and micro-spraying.
However, this is just the start and a tiny percentage of what we want to achieve as a business and what robots will ultimately enable for farming.
Robots are exciting now but they will quickly become a fairly mundane tool. They will, however, be the gateway to a new way of monitoring and managing farms led by the Internet of Things and interconnected sensors.
We are rapidly approaching a world of a trillion sensors, and a world in which a network of sensors will be in constant communication with each other, where they will be able, for example; to sense tiny changes in a growing crop of wheat and accurately take action based on this data.
But none of this is possible if we continue to operate a tractor-led farming system. The proliferation of sensor technology has been slower in farming than in most other sectors precisely because it is difficult to develop technologies that are truly useful in the current system.
The digital tools which are commercially available in the agriculture space at the moment certainly have potential but they are badly hampered by a tractor-led system. Tools, for example, which map out weed density, or count plants, or predict weather patterns, or gather soil data for a specific area already take advantage of the developments in sensor technology. However, I am yet to meet a farmer who really knows what to do with this data.
Precision, plant level data is useless unless we are able to take plant level action.
This is where the robots come in...
Small Robot Company will not develop every new sensor technology in house, although we will develop some but I am very confident that we can make existing technology much more effective.
Sensors are becoming cheaper, more powerful, more responsive and easier to make. They will enable the digitisation of primary food production and it will be, very conservatively, ten times better than our current food production system.
If you are currently developing sensor technology, even if your current focus is not primary food production, and you think that you can help improve the effectiveness of what we are doing, please get in touch with me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.