The agriculture industry is increasingly turning to digitisation and new technologies in a bid to cut costs and protect the environment, and UK agritech startup The Small Robot Company is looking to help it get there faster.

According to research from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), currently half of the costs to farmers are variable, and when it comes to fixed costs machinery takes up the largest chunk.

© The Small Robot Company
© The Small Robot Company

On average, farmers may spend about £39,000 a year on machinery alone, according to a future farming and environment evidence compendium released by DEFRA in February 2018.

In order to change the current state of the industry, traditional farming processes will need to undergo a phase of transformation to cut these fixed costs. This is where advanced technologies and better use of data can close the gap, such as IoT sensors, new devices and robotics.

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One approach, pioneered by UK startup The Small Robot Company would be to deploy robots across fields to effectively replace big machinery such as tractors, using 90 percent less chemicals and 95 percent less energy.

Robotics could also help farmers to increase revenues by up to 40 percent and reduce costs by 60 percent, according to Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO and founder of The Small Robot Company (SRC).

Founded by Scott-Robinson and Sam Watson-Jones in 2016, SRC aims to deliver fleets of robots across farms to drastically transform the usage of machinery in fields.

"Farmers understand that actually, the situation is quite bad for them at the moment because of the costs," Scott-Robinson tells Techworld. "Farming is going up and tractors cost a fortune, but their revenues are exactly the same, so they're all wise to it and suddenly the younger farmers are the ones who run the big farm and begin to know they have to invest in some sort of innovation to make it happen.

"They buy big machinery that then goes into a shed for 10 to 11 months of the year and is hauled out when they need to be used and they're always broken. Something is rusty or the engine doesn't work properly. So what they're actually afraid of is looking after a really sophisticated piece of kit." 

There are many ways these robots could be deployed in farming, from planting to growing crops, with the efficiency behind the adoption of robots saving more money and time.

"We came up with using 'Farming as a Service' (FaaS)," Scott-Robinson says. "So the idea was taking three different types of robots that can deliver everything from the smallest job, all the way up to harvesting and just running that as a service so farmers don't buy anything, they just pay per hectare."

Tom, Dick and Harry

The three robots launched are called Tom, Dick and Harry, with each one designed to handle different jobs across the farm.

The initial prototype robot was called Rachel and eventually was named Tom. This robot would monitor fields using front and rear cameras and would dock at the end of the day to charge and upload the imagery.

"That information is then passed onto our operating system, which is actually a distributed operating system across the robots in the cloud that we call Wilma, and that's very heavily AI driven," he says. "It has two levels of deep learning involved in it and a very sophisticated rules engine that literally takes the images that come out of Tom and then converts them to instructions for Dick and Harry."

The second robot, called Dick, is built to watch over the crops using non-chemical weeding and laser electricity to kill the weeds. It also uses a precise spot application of pesticides to ensure they do not go on the ground; essentially this saves around 90 to 95 percent of chemicals that are currently used on farms.

Thirdly, Harry acts as the planting robot, offering precise drill and plant accuracy. "Harry is sent out when Tom confirms the soil is four degrees centigrade, which is the right temperature," he says, meaning Harry doesn't have to plough but can 'punch plant' in a far more accurate way.

"So it just plants directly into the soil and that means that not only are we saving the soil structure, which is the best way to look after the soil, but also we know where every single plant is and it is then fit back into the system so Tom knows where every plant is," Scott-Robinson explains.

FaaS and digital farming are still in their infancy, but Scott-Robinson is positive the model will take off by 2020.

"One of the reasons that FaaS has really worked for us is that it really lowers the barrier to entry. So we have signed up 30 farmers to start off with, five of which we are looking to do our first piece of work with in September 2018," he says. "They are happy to pay for that because we're charging them per hectare and that's about 20 percent less than costs they would have to put out for fuel, labor and machinery.

"The real strength of what we're doing is that there are no risks for the farmers, and they do not have to outlay a huge amount of money," he adds.