Claimed to be Britain’s first fully autonomous crop-scanning service, the Per Plant Farming robot services will roll out from this autumn to about 50 farms over the 2022-2023 growing season.
Pilot trials during the harvest 2022 season are said to have demonstrated that herbicide applications can be cut by around 77% and fertiliser by 15%, according to the Small Robot Company (SRC).
The service will optimise existing sprayer equipment to reduce costs and inputs using Per Plant Intelligence from SRC’s Tom monitoring robot to assess weed density information and treat problem areas only.
Tom scans the field, building an understanding of where every plant is and what each one needs to achieve optimal performance.
Wilma, SRC’s AI Advice Engine, then creates treatment maps to advise farmers on the best action to take.
This information is used to inform variable rate fertiliser applications and to spot-apply herbicides through nozzle control and sectional control sprays.
Sam Watson Jones, president and co-founder, Small Robot Company, says: “With input costs on the rise, farmers are increasingly under pressure. Up to 90% of inputs are wasted. This is not economically or environmentally viable.
Fertiliser alone is a major contributor to agricultural emissions.
“Robotics gives huge scope to close the gap: delivering applications by exception.
Precision monitoring alone can provide immediate value, optimising existing sprayers for herbicide and fertiliser applications.
“But we believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential for what Per Plant Farming can deliver, both in input cost savings and yield enhancement.”
The launch follows on-farm trials on three farms during the 2021- 2022 growing season to develop the service, including the Waitrose Leckford Estate and the Lockerley Estate, owned by the Sainsbury family.
The trials covered 118 hectares, locating 446 million wheat plants in which 4.6m weeds were identified. Tom’s six on-board cameras, mounted on a boom, deliver a ground sample distance of 0.39mm per pixel.
This gives Tom the capability to see individual water droplets on leaves and early signs of disease outbreak, says SRC.
Weed surveys conducted during the 2022 harvest season revealed surprisingly few areas of the field where the density was more than one weed/sq.m.
With this information, SRC can create heat maps so farmers can only treat problem areas, rather than blanket treat the whole field.
A service offered first on an exclusive basis to SRC’s farmer advisers was fully subscribed for 2022.
The Lockerley Estate was one of the first three farms to trial the technology in the 2021-2022 season and is now signed up to services for the 2022-2023 season.
Farm manager and SRC farmer advisory board member Craig Livingstone says: “Above all, I want the Small Robot Company to give me the confidence not to take action.
Robotics offer us a real chance to answer the many questions of modern agriculture in responding to climate change, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and, of course, soil and food security.”
Waitrose’s Leckford Estate was also among the first UK farms to sign up for SRC’s robotic services.
Andrew Hoad, partner and head of Leckford Estate, believes the technology has the potential to shape how we farm in the future.
“By helping us be more precise and targeted in controlling weeds and managing pests, this next generation of farming robots could in turn help us protect biodiversity on our land and preserve the natural environment for future generations,” he says.
Suffolk farmer and contractor Tom Jewers is signed up for the coming season.
He says: “We desperately need to develop ways to reduce the need for expensive plant protection products and artificial fertilisers.
The ability to treat only the plants that actually need it is game-changing.”
Future SRC services currently in development or trials include robotic non-chemical weeding; disease identification and fungicide treatment sprayer export; soil sampling and insights; and grass-weed classification, including black-grass.
SRC will take plant density information, augmenting this with other metrics, such as biomass assessment, soil insights, physiology, tiller count, growth stage and weather, to support decisions on when and how much fertiliser to apply, and exactly where it’s needed, optimising plant nutrition.
SRC’s commercial Per Plant Farming service will be rolled out in ‘Service Pods’ made up of up to six local farmers sharing the use of a Tom robot to create treatment maps, using these with existing sprayer equipment to reduce costs and inputs.
Farmers can try out the service on as little as 20ha.