Farming robot to help care for crop plants and reduce chemical use

22/06/2023
Farming robot to help care for crop plants and reduce chemical use

A PIONEERING autonomous robot is set to help farmers better monitor the health status of individual crop plants and reduce herbicide use.

Experts from the National Robotarium, the UK’s world-leading centre for robotics and artificial intelligence, and The James Hutton Institute will use Small Robot Company’s ‘Tom v4’ agritech robot to remotely scan agricultural fields to identify, locate and log individual weeds and crop plants. This information will then be passed through a complex AI algorithm to create a ‘treatment map’ which tells farmers exactly how much herbicide to use and where to apply it.

Current farming practices often rely on herbicides and nutrients being applied over entire field areas. It is hoped that the research partnership between the National Robotarium and The James Hutton Institute will support farmers to dramatically reduce chemical usage by only applying on field areas where weeds or crop pests are present. 

As well as detecting herbicide efficacy, additional outcomes of the research project include collecting and reporting data on individual crop plants – known as per plant precision – to accurately monitor plant numbers and health, including their exact location and survivability, alerting farmers to any areas of immediate need.

It is estimated around one-third of the world’s agricultural products are pesticide dependent[1], with the most common types being herbicides. As the world’s population is expected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050, a 60% increase in the rate of food production will be required, according to a recent UN report[2].

The National Robotarium is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government. The initiative aims to turn Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe and is part of the wider £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal.

Lisa Farrell is Business Development Manager at the National Robotarium. She said:

“With demand on the world’s food resources set to rise significantly, it’s even more important that robotics and AI play an increasing role in assisting modern agricultural practices. Per plant precision agriculture is a fantastic example of how technology can help us to be kinder to the environment whilst supporting Britain’s farming community to be more efficient, precise and productive. 

“The National Robotarium continues to be a leading collaborative hub, bringing together academics and global companies. Working with partners like the James-Hutton Institute and forward-leaning start-ups like Small Robot Company, we can drive efficiencies, accelerate growth and deliver economic benefit to the UK’s agriculture sector and beyond.”

Andrew Christie, Agronomist and Agri-Tech Specialist at The James Hutton Institute, said: 

“Having the Tom v4 robot on site will expand our capabilities in terms of agricultural research and precision breeding. With possibilities for different cameras and AI models to be applied, the potential for this scientific tool is extensive and expansive. There will be lots of opportunities to explore new uses for the robot in research and it will add value to many of our research proposals going forward. 

“Our first task will be to implement Tom in cereal trials to help develop and improve precision of in-field phenotyping as part of our flagship initiative, the International Barley Hub, bringing better understanding of crop characteristics to help us in our aim of producing the resource efficient and climate resilient crops of the future.”

Ben Scott-Robinson, Small Robot Company CEO, said: 

“Our Tom v4 robot can see every emerging plant, water droplet, worm midden and early disease outbreak – supporting farmers to know exactly what to treat and when, with minimal chemical use. This is a world-first for scientific research and potentially transformational for plant science. We’ve worked closely with the farming sector to co-design our robot, developing an entirely new model for sustainable, efficient and profitable farming.

“The potential of this technology is  phenomenal and the commercial purchase of our Tom robot by the National Robotarium and its subsequent loaning to The James Hutton Institute marks the start of a unique partnership. Together, we can advance research into how robotic technology and automated systems can support Britain’s agriculture and farming sectors to overcome industry challenges, drive sustainable practices and boost productivity.”

UK Government Minister for Scotland Malcolm Offord said:  

“This ingenious robot will reduce herbicide use. It will also encourage the growth of healthy crops which are so vital for food security at a time supplies are threatened by the war in Ukraine and global population growth.

“The UK Government has invested £21 million in the National Robotarium supporting high quality jobs, investment and growth while helping to foster their world-leading research, as part of our £2.3 billion pound investment to level up across Scotland.”

Scottish Government Wellbeing Economy Secretary, Neil Gray, said:

“This innovative research is another example of the valuable work conducted at the National Robotarium, which benefited from Scottish Government support through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

“It recognises the requirements of farmers to protect the health of their crops while limiting the use of herbicide. Scotland can be a world leader in the development and use of AI in a way which is trustworthy, ethical and inclusive.”

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