Ro­bots in the field

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Technology -

Faced with see­saw­ing com­mod­ity prices and the pres­sure to be more ef­fi­cient and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, farmer Jamie But­ler is try­ing out a new worker on his 450acre (1.8sq m) farm in eng­land’s Hamp­shire coun­try­side.

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

Tom’s cre­ator, the Small Ro­bot com­pany, is part of a wave of “agri-tech” star­tups 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 will 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 year­long trial.

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

The aim is to dras­ti­cally cut down on fer­tiliser 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,” said Ben Scott-Robin­son, co-founder of the Small Ro­bot com­pany. “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, multi-ro­bot 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 and, more re­cently, un­manned aerial drones that mon­i­tor crops have gone into ser­vice.

even­tu­ally, farms “will be able to au­to­mate vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing”, said Tim cham­bers, a fruit farmer who’s not in­volved in the trial. Some jobs are harder to au­to­mate, such as har­vest­ing del­i­cate rasp­ber­ries or straw­ber­ries, 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 and Bel­gium’s Oc­tin­ion are all de­vel­op­ing berry-pick­ing bots. Cal­i­for­nia startup Iron Ox and Ja­pan’s Spread au­to­mated in­door farms.

Bosch startup Deep­field Ro­bot­ics is work­ing on a weed­ing ro­bot that punches them into the ground. Last year, Bri­tish re­searchers planted, mon­i­tored, tended and har­vest-

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, for ex­am­ple, fly in fruit from other coun­tries where labour is cheaper, he said.

To ease fi­nan­cial pres­sure on farm­ers re­luc­tant to make big one-off in­vest­ments in equip­ment, the Small Ro­bot com­pany plans to sell its ser­vices as a monthly sub­scrip­tion, charg­ing £600 (RM3,175) per hectare a year.

With a bright or­ange 3d-printed body, and beefy all-ter­rain wheels, Tom re­sem­bles an over­sized roller skate. Their light­weight means th­ese ro­bots won’t com­pact soil the way trac­tors do, Scott-Robin­son said.

On But­ler’s farm, Tom trun­dles along crop rows tak­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of high-res­o­lu­tion pic­tures dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son. The im­ages are fed to Wilma, the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence plat­form, which is be­ing trained to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween wheat and weeds.

In 2019, the com­pany will start tri­als for two more ro­bots, dick and Harry. dick will de­liver fer­tiliser di­rectly to the soil around the roots, in­stead of waste­ful blan­ket spray­ing, and use a laser or mi­cro-spray chem­i­cals to kill weeds. Harry will in­sert seeds into the earth at a uni­form depth and spac­ing, elim­i­nat­ing the need for trac­tors to plough fur­rows. – aP

As 'Tom' is light­weight, the ro­bot won’t com- pact soil the way trac­tors do.

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