The RSA recently delivered a two year independent report, led by Sir Ian Cheshire, outlining a way forward for the UK’s farming industry as we prepare to leave the European Union. The report, titled Our Future in the Land, recommends a ten year transition to agroecology - developing a farming system which is focused on regenerating soil health and reducing our reliance as an industry on chemicals.
Sir Ian was kind enough to reference Tom, Dick and Harry in his interview on the Today programme (1hr20mins in), outlining the recommendations from the report. Indeed, we share his vision for a better future for our farms - here’s how we think our technology can help.
Firstly, our Tom robot, coupled with Wilma our Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven operating system, will create a digital understanding of our soil and our plants. At the moment, we only have a superficial understanding of how our soils and plants interact, so there is an urgent need for an exponential increase in the granularity of the data we are gathering on our farms. Healthy soil feeds healthy plants and visa versa - the one cannot exist without the other, and AI can enable a farmer to understand the layers of interaction that lead to a productive and stable environment, allowing the farmer to work with the ecosystem present on their farm, rather than trying to force the performance with the broad application of chemicals and fertiliser. The system we currently operate leads to a huge amount of waste and damages the soil biology as a result.
Secondly, our Dick and Harry robots will be lightweight and agile. Robots of this sort will lead to better soil health simply by taking less weight onto the soil and through being more accurate in their application. Dick will identify and kill individual weeds without using chemicals, and Harry will place individual seeds in the ground to create optimum plant performance.
Finally, as a result of a new farming system based on better data, AI analysis and lightweight machines, farming will have a much lower impact on the environment. The current farming system has a huge range of unintended negative environmental impacts because we are operating a system which is based around making the machinery as efficient and as quick as possible, rather than operating with as much accuracy as possible. By changing the system, we will reduce not only reduce the impact of farming on the environment, we also enable what Gabe Brown, author of Dirt to Soil and a leading proponent of Regenerative Agriculture, calls “biologically active, nutrient rich soils”.
The general public, people who are not farmers, care instinctively about air quality and water quality - it is often more difficult to explain to them why they should care about soil quality. Food security is one factor: degrading soil health and erosion is very worrying; we may only have 30 harvests left. But in addition, this is why: nutrient rich soils lead to nutrient rich food.
We are working with our partners Waitrose and the National Trust on a concept called ‘Robot Farmed.’ With their help, we hope to educate consumers about the benefits of farming differently, of using the latest technology to push soil health further up the list of priorities. Food produced by robots and Artificial Intelligence will be better for the environment and healthier for people to eat.
This is not something that Small Robot Company can lay a claim to yet, because at present we are only focusing on wheat and for this impact to really come to fruition, the whole system needs to be managed in the same way - but this is the direction in which we think the technology is leading and the benefits could potentially be enormous.
At the end of Brown’s excellent book Dirt to Soil he cites some shocking findings from recent Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) research:
Nutrient depletion has become a global crisis
Around one third of the global population is chronically deficient in essential minerals
More than a billion people are currently suffering from a lack of trace iron
Available dietary minerals in vegetables have declined in nutrient density over the past fifty years:
Calcium is down 46%
Iron is down 50%
Magnesium is down 24%
You have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of vitamins that my grandparents would have enjoyed from eating one orange in their youth.
Although many of these are crops that Small Robot Company are not currently working on, technologies like the ones we are developing will be the answer to enabling healthier soil and healthier food.
We want these technologies to have an overwhelmingly positive influence on the lives of farmers, but also on the lives of consumers. We’re about to see a massive influx of commercial robots in the consumer domain. In our shops, our factories, our hotels, our streets and our fields.
But there have been growing concerns around the ethical, economical and safety implications of developing a society where AI robotics are developed to coexist with humans. It's vital that consumers can trust and feel comfortable with these encounters.
So we are launching a Human Robot Interaction public consultation at CountryFile Live on the 2nd August at Blenheim Palace, where my Co-Founder Ben Scott-Robinson will be speaking.
What’s your instinctive reaction to robots? Do you think this technology will have a positive impact? What happens if you meet a farming robot while out on a walk?
How do you want robots to impact the future of your food? How can we ensure that robots have a positive influence on food production?
We are kindly being supported in this consultation by the National Trust. If you’re attending CountryFile Live, please come to National Trust Green House to take part. If you won’t be going, but you would still like to contribute, please get in touch.