Are we about to see a robot revolution in agriculture? Even before Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, problems of labour supply were nothing new in farming (and use of pesticides is increasingly problematic). We need to produce more food for a growing world population, but without taking up more land or further contributing to climate change. Could robots do the job of weeding and tending crops more precisely, reliably and cost-effectively, and in a way that is better for the environment?
Salisbury SME the Small Robot Company has developed an autonomous robotic farming system that boosts agricultural productivity, ridding fields of weeds and helping crops to grow with fewer chemicals and no heavy machinery.
The system involves three separate robots – called Tom, Dick, and Harry – each with its own area of expertise. Tom rolls among crops taking high-resolution pictures which, with the help of an artificial intelligence platform called Wilma, show how densely crops are growing and how healthy they are, as well as where weeds are growing. Dick then kills the weeds with a quick zap of electricity. Finally Harry, which is still at the prototype stage, will plant new seeds at the required depth (meaning that the soil doesn’t need to be ploughed), as well as delivering fertiliser precisely to the roots of plants, instead of spraying them haphazardly.
All three robots are lightweight, meaning that they don’t compact the soil like tractors do. They work tirelessly around the clock without complaint (or pay). And they give plants a level of attention that isn’t humanly possible: no farmer could check each plant in a large field and treat it individually. The Small Robot Company reckons that its system could reduce farmers’ costs by 40% and use of chemicals by up to 95%.
Innovate UK support
The business had already been a two-time Innovate UK beneficiary (with support totaling more than £700k) as it developed its AI, and it had successfully trialed its system. The next step was to progress to larger-scale testing and demonstration of what the bots can do, and the development of partnerships with manufacturing and distribution partners, as well as with potential customers. For this, the company turned to Innovate UK EDGE.
Where better to show the effectiveness of Tom, Dick and Harry than the wide open fields of North America? The Small Robot Company successfully applied for the Innovate UK Agri-Tech Global Business Innovation Programme (GBIP), organised by Innovate UK EDGE, which led to a visit to Canada in January 2020. This particular GBIP was funded through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) and coincided with the launch of Innovate UK’s bilateral Transforming Food Production competition with funding partners NRC IRAP in Canada.
With its close ties to the UK, the free trade agreement between the two countries, the importance of farming to the Canadian economy, and Canada’s pro-innovation farming and environmental policies, this was a great opportunity for the Small Robot Company. As well as taking part in a pre-visit workshop at the Canadian High Commission in London, trips to Alberta and Ontario during the five-day tour included visits to local companies and academic organisations, networking opportunities, and the chance to promote the business at a leading agriculture conference.
Joint ventures and investment
Taking part in the GBIP, seeing Canadian agriculture at first hand and meeting leading players in the Canadian AgTech industry, has given the Small Robot Company a clear path to enter the Canadian market. It has led to some significant successes: through contacts made during the visit the Small Robot Company is entering into a joint venture with a Canadian partner, and is in discussions with another potential Canadian partner, around monitoring and data collection.
For Ben Scott Robinson, Co-founder and CEO of the Small Robot Company, getting involved with Innovate UK EDGE and taking part in GBIP has been a game-changer. "Canada is a crucial market for us: it was our first choice as a non-domestic market, and stands to become our largest overall. We are in a strong position to roll out a commercial farming robotics service there in the next two years. Without support from a GBIP, this simply wouldn’t have happened.”
The Small Robot Company has also successfully applied to take part in the Agri-Tech Global Incubator Programme in Canada. Here it will join another 6-8 innovative SMEs to spend time in a world-leading incubator, exploring the potential of the Canadian market and accessing world-class mentors and tailored workspaces.