Sun, Dec 02, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Robot farmhands taking to UK fields

By Kelvin Chan  /  AP, EAST MEON, England

A farming robot named “Tom” produced by Small Robot Co is pictured in East Meon, England, on Friday.

Photo: AP

Faced with seesawing commodity prices and the pressure to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, farmer Jamie Butler was trying out a new worker on his 182-hectare farm in England’s Hampshire countryside.

Methodically inspecting Butler’s winter wheat crop for weeds and pests, the laborer did not complain or even break a sweat. That is because it is a four-wheel robot dubbed “Tom” that uses GPS, artificial intelligence (AI) and smartphone technology to digitally map the field.

Tom’s creator, Small Robot Co, is part of a wave of “agri-tech” start-ups working to transform production in a sector that is under economic strain due to market pressures to keep food cheap, a rising global population and the uncertainties of climate change.

Most robots are still only being tested, but they offer a glimpse of how automation would spread from manufacturing plants into rural areas.

“If we can keep our costs to an absolute minimum by being on the leading edge of technologies as one method of doing that, then that’s a really, really good thing,” said Butler, one of 20 British farmers enlisted in a year-long trial.

Next year, the British start-up plans to start testing two more robots controlled by an artificial intelligence system that would work alongside Tom, autonomously doing precision “seeding, feeding and weeding.”

The aim is to drastically cut down on fertilizer and pesticide use to lower costs, and boost profits for struggling farmers.

As such, it not only helps economically, but it also lowers the environmental impact of farming.

“What we’re doing is stuff that people can’t do,” Small Robot Co cofounder Ben Scott-Robinson said. “It’s not physically possible for a farmer to go round and check each individual plant and then treat that plant individually. That’s only possible when you have something as tireless as a robot, and as focused and accurate as an AI to be able to achieve that.”

Commercial sales of the full, multirobot system is still years away, with larger-scale testing planned for 2021.

They represent the next step in the evolution of automation for farms. Self-driving tractors and robotic milking machines have been in use for years.

Eventually, farms “will be able to automate virtually everything,” said Tim Chambers, a fruit farmer who is not involved in the trial.

Some jobs are harder to automate, such as harvesting delicate raspberries or strawberries by hand, but even that is coming, said Chambers, a member of Britain’s National Farmers Union.

Florida’s Harvest Croo Robotics, Spain’s Agrobot, Britain’s Dogtooth Technologies Ltd and Belgium’s Octinion BVBA are all developing berry-picking bots. California start-up Iron Ox Inc and Japan’s Spread Co grow vegetables in automated indoor farms.

Last year, British researchers planted, monitored, tended and harvested a barley crop using only autonomous machines, in what they said was a world-first.

A more fundamental problem “will be the cost of building those robots and the research that has to go into making them,” Chambers said.

The low cost of air freight could still make it cheaper to fly in fruit from other countries where labor is cheaper, he said.

To ease financial pressure on farmers reluctant to make big one-off investments in equipment, the Small Robot Co plans to sell its services as a monthly subscription, charging £600 (US$765) per hectare a year.

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