SMALL ROBOTS AT THE GREAT FESTIVAL

The week before last was a bit of a blur.

1 robot in a big wheeled box. 25 hours in a plane. 28 hours in Hong Kong. 1 presentation. 5 Press interviews. 1 Round table. Countless brilliant conversations and 1 very excited and quite tired founder!

Why, you might ask? We - well, our prototype robot Rachael - was guest of honour at the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong with the Department for International Trade.

First things first.

Rachael, our prototype monitoring robot was carefully loaded into the sprung flight case by a trepidatious Head of Robot Awesomeness. It really brought home how important Rachael is. 6 months and countless hours of refining and finessing means she is without doubt the most important member of the SRC team!

As we wouldn’t be able to demonstrate her skills in the covered venue at the Asia Centre, she was stripped of all her smarts and batteries, and left with the shell to be admired. Despite this, all loaded up and strapped down, she was still 85cm cubed, and weighed in at 60kg - far above the baggage limit for the flight.

Luckily British Airways were sponsors of the Festival, and really laid out the red carpet for her at Heathrow. We were assigned a team led by Arooj Maroud to get Rachael through security and customs, and to get her in the cabin of the plane before anyone else boarded for a little photo shoot. I have never experienced VIP service like it at an airport, but even so, I was painfully aware I was essentially Rachael’s minder and translator. "Can I see your robot please?" is definitely the best question I have been asked at luggage drop.

On arrival, an unsuspecting representative from the event was there to pick us up from the airport. It took a lot of jiggling in a great big Merc van to get Rachael in, but once there I got to enjoy the drive through the mountains and bridges into the heart Hong Kong. A brief dinner and then bed...

We booked the hotel for its proximity to the Asia Centre, but as I wheeled out Rachael in the morning, the lovely staff showed me the incredible gradient I would have to climb, and dutifully bundled the idiot Englishman in the back of a taxi for the 100 metre trip to the Centre.

The GREAT event crew took over. Not only getting Rachael and I set up, but introducing me to a whirl of people. The talk whisked by, with an extensive question and answer session, and a small queue of people to talk to afterwards. The premier of the new Harry designs went down very well, and the enthusiastic feedback was charming. Then away for filming and interviews. Again, while I was saying the words, all eyes were on Rachael!

It was amazing to see the other speakers, and get a chance to meet the founder of the GREAT campaign, Sir Conrad Bird. However, as I thought I could relax a bit, I was asked to take part in a round table about the power of small companies to innovate and disrupt, run by Kevin Burrowes and Leo Johnson from PwC. It was invigorating to talk at such an elevated level, and amazing the authority our small team quietly innovating behind the neo-classical facade of Portsmouth Guildhall gives us.

Then back in a taxi and straight to the airport to get Rachael safely loaded… and finally… relax…

What did I learn? That the sense of ‘can do’ in Hong Kong is massively exciting. That the UK puts on a great face through these GREAT Festivals, and that the potential of robots to save the world is a message that transcends borders.

On a serious note, it was exciting to explore how we can provide an arable crop service that brings benefit across the world. Rice remains the single most important food crop globally. But there are several challenges with rice production that we hope to help solve.

Firstly, labour. Urban migration is causing shortages and the age of the average rice farmer is steadily rising; many are near retirement. Secondly, the environment. Overuse of chemicals is endemic. And fertiliser usage is 75% higher and pesticide 40% in China than the global average for rice production. Thirdly, yield. Growing world population means a 25% leap in rice yield is required by the year 2025. Meanwhile crop diversification, industrialisation and urbanisation have caused a 19% reduction in the land area farmed for rice in the last 40 years.

Robotics has the potential to solve these problems. The GREAT festival gave us the opportunity to starting working with rice farmers to evolve and develop a service that answers their needs, in the same way we have been working with wheat farmers in the UK. Being able to provide precision and automation for rice would not just be a step forward in farming, it will revolutionise agriculture for half the world’s population.

And from the GREAT to the small, and personal: Oh, and if I want VIP treatment, I need Rachael the robot.