A three-year trial to revolutionise the way crops are grown has been launched as a partnership between Waitrose and the Small Robot Company.
The supermarket giant will be the first of its kind to use the technology in an attempt to ‘reimagine food production’ through a one-hectare wheat field trial, with plans to sell the wheat in the retailer’s bread and flour.
Three small robots – Tom, Dick and Harry – will work at the Small Robot Company’s farm in Leckford, Hampshire, on a field trial designed to improve yields, reduce the use of chemicals and help to apply big data in agricultural practices to drive efficiency.
The Small Robot Company said this type of innovation had the potential to increase revenues by up to 40 per cent, whilst lowering costs by as much as 60 per cent.
It would also deliver considerable environmental benefits, reducing the damage caused to soil by heavier, traditional farming methods and reducing waste through its individual plant care system.
Andrew Hoad, partner and head of the Leckford Estate, said: “This new technology could be revolutionary for British farming.
“It is not designed to replace human labour but instead boost productivity and increase accuracy, freeing up the agricultural workforce to focus on other important tasks.
“We want to be at the forefront of this, and ensure we leave our soils and environment in great shape for future generations.”
The trial will use gardening tactics such as companion planting, but for broad acre crops – while different crops could be planted alongside each other in the same field, and harvested at different times.
The Tom robot has been fitted with cameras and will gather topographical data, moving autonomously to obtain and pinpoint ‘accurate, plant-by-plant view of the wheat field, leading to high efficiency’.
Dick, the precision weeding robot, will use machine vision to differentiate between weeds and crops, whilst Harry, the digital planting robot, will accurately punch-plant seeds individually in the ground at a uniform depth, creating a plant level map showing the exact location of each seed.
The data gathered by the prototype Tom robot will be used to develop an artificial intelligence system called Wilma, eventually used to guide the three robots to farm autonomously.
“It is the ultimate sustainable farming model,” added Sam Watson Jones, Small Robot Company co-founder and fourth generation Shropshire farmer.