A full robotic system for arable farming could be available by 2027, according to Professor Simon Blackmore, head of agricultural robotics at Harper Adams University.
Prof Blackmore says: “If I’m optimistic we could have a full robotic system available, although things are not going to change overnight and it will be a gradual process.
If I’m pessimistic we could still be having the same conversation in 10 years’ time. However, we already have the technology to make this happen.” While the drive for greater automation in a post-Brexit economy may well push robotics up the agenda, Prof Blackmore says Brexit was not even a twinkle in Nigel Farage’s eye when he started his work.
“The main reason for starting this work was to make the whole crop production system significantly more efficient,” he says. “The more I look at this, the more critical I become of the big heavy machines, and the more opportunity there is for smaller, smarter machines.
The move towards bigger and bigger machines is obviously driven by economies of scale, but there are other ways of improving efficiency, and the one I’m interested in is intelligently targeted inputs. “Rather than spreading the fertiliser or spraying across the whole field, where only 5-10% goes on target, we need machines which put the chemical or the fertiliser exactly where we need it.
This will significantly reduce the cost of production. This kind of precision farming won’t necessarily increase yields, but it will make it cheaper to produce current yields.”
Prof Blackmore also believes the advent of more precise application through robotics could make an impact on a number of chemicals which are under scrutiny and may be banned or limited in their use. He says: “The problem is not with the chemicals, but with the machine which applies the chemicals.
There is software available which allows weed-recognition and could programme a machine to just put the chemical onto the leaf of the weed. We can change the machines and make the application of these chemicals both more economic and more environmentally-friendly.” His work has looked at four key areas where robotics could make a difference on the arable farm of the future:
He believes the robot most likely to have made an impact in 10 years will be the ‘crop care’ robot providing micro dot application of herbicides or laser weeding.
He also thinks that in the future, weeding – and other services – may be offered as a service rather than a product. “When I have been talking to innovative companies which may want to invest in this area, we could be looking at a service which is sold to the farmer, rather than selling them the products.
There are a range of benefits to this model including the fact the farmer does not have to take the risk on the technology. “This weeding service could fit with existing systems, and where farmers have problems with blackgrass or other resistant weeds, we could offer a system which goes in and kills them.”
Any such service would need to integrate with existing systems and work with the farmer and agronomist on-farm. The idea they will replace farmers, farm managers or agronomists is one of a number of myths Prof Blackmore is keen to dispel. As a result, he has come up with a list of top myths concerning robotics in arable farming:
Greater efficiency, more professionalism and the requirement to look after the environment are driving developments in agricultural machinery, says New Holland’s marketing manager for UK and Ireland, Mark Crosby.
“The developments which we are already making reflect the need for greater efficiency and more precision,” he says.
“While we will be working to improve the emissions on all our tractors, by 2027 I anticipate that many arable farms will be using our methane-powered tractors.
These have the benefit of lower operating costs and reduced emissions, and the potential for many farms to be energy independent when it comes to fuelling their own tractors.”
While it seems highly unlikely robotics will have made a major impact on arable farms by 2027, many experts agree autonomous tractors will be much more common-place. Mr Crosby confirms this is likely to be the case and New Holland has already launched its own autonomous tractor.
“This year we launched a version of our Basildon-built T7.315 Heavy Duty tractor at SIMA, building on our previous developments. This can be controlled remotely from a tablet or over WiFi,” he says. “I should emphasise we don’t see this kind of equipment replacing people and these machines will still have fully equipped cabs.
Instead at the busiest periods, it will allow farmers to maximise the operating window and have maximum flexibility.” He also sees the continuing development of GPS for greater precision farming as critical, including field mapping, yield monitoring and identification of high- and low-yielding areas which need special treatment.
There will be greater connectivity between implements and tractors, with the ability for implements to control the tractors. Finally, by 2027, the Tractor Mother Regulation will be nearly 10 years old, bringing with it higher standards of safety and more fail-safes in equipment across all manufacturers.