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Modest farms likely to benefit most from automation

Robotics could cut wheat cost of production by 20 per cent, according to a study by Harper Adams University (HAU).

Using data collected from the Hands-Free Hectare project over a number of years, researchers used linear programming to work out what the adoption of autonomous equipment would mean at whole farm level.

 

Prof Karl Behrendt, agri-tech expert at HAU, says: “When we move from conventional equipment like a 300hp tractor to what we call swarm robotics, which might be three or four 38hp units, we have a dramatic impact on the amount of capital invested in machinery.”


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Prof Behrendt says this changes the way capital is used because smaller autonomous machines are used much more intensively, for up to 22 hours a day without the need for supervision.

 

The study found that for small farms (66 hectares), adoption of such robotics could cut wheat cost of production by 20 per cent, and 10 per cent on larger enterprises (284ha).

Prof Behrendt says: “Our results indicate cost of production went from £167/tonne down to £133/t, which potentially makes a smaller farm much more competitive on a global scale. Because large farms are cropping much larger areas, with larger equipment, they are already quite efficient, although swarm robotics still has the capacity to do even better.”

 

The economic analysis of robotics also found capital investment was hugely reduced, by up to 70 per cent in some cases.

Prof Behrendt adds: “That’s a big shift when you are talking about going from £730,000 down to £200,000 of investment in machinery. We are talking about an extra £120-140/ha increase in farm profitability.”

 

There are also a number of positive environmental outcomes that have not been quantified in the analysis, including reduced soil compaction impacts on crop yields and benefits to the landscape, with smaller machines having better access to areas with trees or hedgerows, says Prof Behrendt.

 

With manufacturers in Japan and Canada already producing autonomous vehicles for sowing, spraying and drilling, and SwarmFarm robotics in Australia providing commercial services on lease for autonomous spraying, Prof Behrendt predicts such technology could be less than a decade away, with UK farms seeing broad scale adoption in 20 to 30 years.

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