Small Robot Company, a British agritech start-up for sustainable farming, today announced that prototypes of all four elements of its autonomous robotic farming service - Tom, Dick, Harry and Wilma - will become ready during 2019. The company will showcase its Harry digital drilling robot prototype at CropTec, plus an early version of its Wilma Artificial Intelligence (AI) interface.
Small Robot Company harnesses the power and precision of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve the way that food is produced and minimise chemical usage. It will make farms more profitable, and increase yield and efficiency, through using small robots instead of tractors. Its farmbots Tom Dick and Harry will plant, feed and weed arable crops autonomously, with minimal waste.
Its prototype Tom monitoring robot is already developed and in field trials on 20 farms across the UK, including the National Trust Wimpole Estate. This prototype embodies all the core technology needed for Small Robot Company’s farmbot family. This includes autonomy, geolocation, obstacle avoidance, navigation and the ability to accurately position objects on a map within 2 centimetres.
Following the early version of Harry, currently developed to Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4, early versions of Wilma (its AI 'nervous system' and brains of the operation) and Dick (its precision spraying and non-chemical weeding robot) will be ready during 2019. Non-chemical weeding (Dick) will follow later in 2019, with micro-spraying and digital planting being developed for early 2020.
“We’re developing our technology at phenomenal pace. Just one year on from our formal foundation, we are already geared up to deliver early prototypes for trial in 2019,” said Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company and a fourth generation Shropshire farmer. “This will entirely change what’s possible on the farm, and how we think about farming. When we can not only understand a farmer’s field on a plant by plant basis, but we can also take action at that level, a completely different farming system becomes possible. Farming will be able to produce an abundance of food with minimal negative environmental impacts.”
Robot showcase: Harry
Small Robot Company won a prestigious Horizontal Innovation™ Award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) to develop its Harry digital planting robot prototype. The award has enabled Small Robot Company to harness the power of manufacturing technologies used in pharmaceuticals and construction to deliver Harry’s precision drilling and planting mechanism. Harry will accurately place seed individually in the ground at a uniform depth to within 2cm accuracy, creating a plant level map showing the location of each seed.
Harry will accurately place seed individually in the ground at a uniform depth to within 2cm accuracy, creating a plant level map showing the location of each seed. By punch-planting rather than ploughing, Harry will also radically reduce soil run off and associated water pollution.
In association with the Manufacturing Technology Catapult, the product has been developed to Technology Readiness Level 4 (TRL4), with proof of concept now complete. With a three metre boom, Harry has an 'arachnid' design, enabling it to fold up compactly for transport by transit van. Three patents are pending.
Small Robot Company then partnered with Bristol Robotics Lab to built Harry’s robotic chassis. This has a modular workhorse design, to enable Small Robot Company to quickly add on additional functionality as required. This early prototype will be showcased at CropTec.
The next step will be to build on this to develop the Dick weeding and spraying robot.
“Feeding an estimated extra 2.2 billion people living on planet earth by 2050 is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face in the future,” says Alan Howard, the IET’s Design and Manufacturing Lead.
“This brilliant idea from Small Robot Company, with its ingenious application of robotics and automation technologies, could provide a vital and secure source of food to help feed the world”.
Artificial Intelligence in action: Wilma
The Small Robot Company will also show an early version of the interface for Wilma, the Artificial Intelligence ‘nervous system’ for its Farming as a Service (FaaS) offering. Wilma is the core of an intelligent, autonomous crop management system for arable farming. She is a sophisticated, granular 'operating system' of crop and soil monitoring and care which will enable each plant in the field to be cared for individually, with no waste. Directed by Wilma, the robots will only feed and spray the plants that need it, giving them the perfect levels nutrients and support. This will cut chemicals and emissions by up to 95%.
Taking data gathered in the field by Tom, Wilma can see every blade of emerging wheat, bumblebee nest, and wormhole. She will then analyse this data to determine what remedial action is required. Wilma has been trained with the data gathered from phase one of field trials in 2018, and can already recognise Wheat from Non-Wheat plants.
“Ultimately, we will be able to employ permaculture techniques at scale - using gardening tactics such as companion planting, but for broadacre crops,” says Watson Jones. “Different crops could be planted alongside eachother in the same field, and harvested at different times.”
Field trials: by farmers, for farmers
Small Robot Company will be working with its Farmer Advisory Group, consisting of 20 farmers across the UK, to develop its service for future farming on farm. Field trials are currently in progress in 20 farms across the United Kingdom, including the National Trust Wimpole Estate. Small Robot Company will work in conjunction with its trial farmers to develop the technology from early proof of concept prototype to a more robust working model.
The company is now be working to establish its ‘Hundred Club’ panel of an additional 100 farmers, both for regular consultation and to come on board to trial its robotics service when it is ready for large scale commercial trials in 2021.
“Robotic technology is coming; but we believe it must be by farmers, for farmers,” concludes Watson Jones. “As a farmer, it was important to me that if we are to develop an entirely new farming system, it must be done in conjunction with farmers, and not an imposition.”
About Small Robot Company
We are a group of farmers, engineers, scientists and service designers with a deep knowledge farming, robotics, AI and service design. Our technology builds on 15 years’ research by Professor Simon Blackmore, the world’s leading expert in precision farming at Harper Adams university. We are dedicated to building technology that will make farming profitable, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. We are building a farming service designed by farmers for farmers that uses robotics and AI to deliver this dream.
We have been developing our hardware, software and service offering throughout 2017. Our first prototype robot has been built and is successfully working. Field trials are currently in progress in 20 farms across the United Kingdom, including the National Trust Wimpole Estate. We are currently building the world’s most detailed living data model for our Neural Network to exploit. The initial focus for our service is arable crops.
Hear more about our company and see our prototype monitoring robot in action in this video here, made by the Institute of Engineering and Technology.
Agri-tech robotic service
Small Robot Company offers its robots through a Farming as a Service (FaaS) model, which is both a hardware and a software service for farmers. Farmers pay a per hectare subscription fee for a robotic hardware service which digitises the farm, and delivers crop care at per-plant precision. The full service will comprise:
Tom, crop and soil monitoring robot
Dick, precision spraying and laser weeding robot
Harry, precision drilling and planting robot
Wilma, the operating system
The AI-driven neural network
PICTURES AVAILABLE ON REQUEST