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British Small robot company launches first commercial robot

 Image courtesy of SRC

Small Robot Company (SRC), a British agritech start-up for sustainable farming, announced its first commercial robot, ‘Tom’. The Tom monitoring robot is now delivered to commercial specification and entering service on UK farms. Customers include the Lockerley Estate, where robots are a key part of its regenerative farming strategy, as well as Waitrose & Partners and the National Trust.

SRC’s first service using Tom will be per plant weeding, a world-first milestone. This is now in field trials (see demo video), with Tom scanning first arable crops to detect weeds, and robot weeding prototype ‘Dick’ then zapping individual weeds with electrical ‘lightning strikes’, using no chemicals. On-farm pilots of the service will commence this autumn.

With up to 95% of chemicals wasted in the current farming system, this new non-chemical weeding technology will be significantly more nature-friendly and better for biodiversity. In future, Tom will also gather data from multiple sources, such as sensors and microphones for birdsong and pollinators, to assess soil health and biodiversity.

Manufactured in Northumberland by Tharsus, Tom will also be going into 5G trials in Dorset in the autumn in the £8 million 5G RuralDorset project.

World-first milestone: per plant weeding

A world-first, SRC demonstrated its new per plant weeding capabilities in technology demos at the Lockerley Estate, Hampshire. SRC showed a pair of robots, ‘Tom’ and ‘Dick’, working in concert with its artificial intelligence Advice Engine ‘Wilma’ to identify and kill individual weeds with electricity. The ‘Dick’ robot prototype deploys RootWave non-chemical weeding technology mounted on an igus delta robotic arm to zap the weeds.

This is a major technological milestone which will enable automated, precision, per-plant weeding both at scale and autonomously, for the first time providing a post-chemical future for arable farmers.

“To prove the power of per plant farming we are focusing on answering the biggest problem that farmers face at the moment which is weeding,” said Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO and co-founder, Small Robot Company, “We’ve now proved we can deliver per plant weeding: a world first. The focus for us now is being able to move forward to deliver this, repeatedly, and at scale. This will be game-changing.”

“Weeds, especially black grass, are crippling. It’s costing the industry a fortune,” commented   and National Food Strategy advisory panel. “Resistance to herbicides is the number one problem. The robot offers us a real chance to stop using artificial inputs, which goes towards our regenerative model of farming.”

Transformational for agriculture: trial plots, Net Zero and biodiversity

Tom’s scanning and measurement capabilities are also applicable to lots of wider players in the agriculture industry. The new mapping service offers highly accurate and repeatable measurement of crop data, with the opportunity for every field to become a trial plot. With trial plots yielding as much as 20 tonnes of wheat per hectare, versus the average of 8.4 tonnes on UK farms, there is considerable opportunity to improve performance.

SRC is currently conducting a pilot with its Tom robot taking soil samples to assess soil health measurement. Robotic monitoring could provide accurate, repeatable carbon measurement at farm scale. This could be transformational in providing accurate carbon sequestration measurement to support UK farming’s transition to Net Zero by 2040.

Tom’s highly accurate measurement capabilities will also help enable farmers to access the new post-Brexit Environmental Land Management (ELMS) payments, due to be introduced in 2024. The new scheme creates a framework that links food production and the environment, and will replace subsidies with ‘public money for public goods.’

“The UK – and UK agriculture – have made bold commitments to Net Zero,” said Sam Watson Jones, President and co-founder, Small Robot Company. “Robotics can already take billions of accurate measurements in each field. This will transform the way that farms are able to sequester and cycle carbon, and measure that accurately. The opportunity for UK (and global) agriculture to support the transition towards Net Zero is enormous.”

Craig Livingstone said: “The climate and biodiversity emergency are here and now for farming. The carbon objectives for our business are really important, focusing strongly on our operations emissions reductions and carbon sequestration. An overarching strategic aim for our business is to be Net Zero, and robotics will be a key tool to take us there.”

Rob Macklin, the National Trust’s Head of Farming and Soils, agreed: “Technology needs to play a big part in solving many of the issues we currently face in farming – particularly improving soil health and carbon sequestration, reducing our reliance on fossil fuel power and fertilisers and avoiding the adverse impacts of synthetic chemicals on the environment. We have started small robot trials at Wimpole and intend to extend trials to other estates in the near future.”

Andrew Hoad, Partner & Head of Waitrose’s Leckford Estate, commented: “This technology could be truly groundbreaking and 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.”

Tom is now delivered to commercial specification, ready for ramp up of the service to more than 100 farms in 2023.
Tom is now delivered to commercial specification, ready for ramp up of the service to more than 100 farms in 2023.

Meet Tom, the first commercial SRC robot, manufactured in Northumberland

Tom is now delivered to commercial specification, ready for ramp up of the service to more than 100 farms in 2023. Tom was manufactured in Blyth, Northumberland by Tharsus, the UK advanced machine and robots designer and manufacturer. The British company also manufactures Ocado’s warehouse robots for global sale.

Other benefits from the mapping service include yield predictions, measurement of herbicide efficacy, and giving farmers the ability to take “no spray” decisions with confidence. The first crop for the service is wheat. SRC is now working on being able to recognise different weed species, with the next phase being multiple crop types. It has also just started a project to be able to detect disease in wheat.

Also being piloted is SlugBot, working with partners Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), in which Tom uses hyper-spectral cameras to detect slugs at night, and then treat them biologically with microdoses of nematodes.

Tom will cover 20 hectares per day autonomously, collecting about 6 terabytes of data in an 8 hour shift, and detecting millions of data points per field. As an example, Tom collected 12.7 million plants in a single 6 hectare field, of which 250,000 were identified as weeds.

He can distinguish plant details at submillimetre resolution, with less than one millimetre per pixel resolution on the ground. He is robust and weather-proof and can be used all year round.  The next generation Tom also incorporates increased speed, 5K camera capacity and extended battery life.

John Toal, Director of Business Development, Tharsus, comments, “Small Robot Company is an archetype of a radical disruptor. They are changing the face of an industry that is experiencing significant economic and environmental challenges – by proposing to do things differently. Significantly so. Our engagement melds together their vision, ambition and inventiveness with our own experience of creating commercially successful products.”

Demonstration: Per Plant action with non-chemical weeding

SRC demonstrated groundbreaking multi-robot ‘end-to-end’ capability, proving its capabilities to deliver per plant weeding, which is a world first. Put simply, ‘end-to-end’ means that one robot (‘Tom’) scans fields for weeds, which are then processed and detected by Wilma, SRC’s artificial intelligence Advice Engine, devising a weed treatment plan. Then a second robot (‘Dick’) is activated to go to the very same spot, ID the weed, and kill it.

An additional milestone achieved is that the ‘Dick’ in-field prototype incorporates on board artificial intelligence and computer vision to detect weeds in real time, then taking action autonomously.

Leading motion plastics company igus’s delta robot, used commonly in industry for pick- and-place operations, manoeuvres the RootWave zapper into place using an integrated motor and encoder, linked to the Dick robot’s master controller. The three igus delta arms fitted to the robot can destroy weeds simultaneously.

Zapping individual weeds with electrical ‘lightning strikes’, using no chemicals.
Zapping individual weeds with electrical ‘lightning strikes’, using no chemicals.

The three igus delta arms fitted to the robot can destroy weeds simultaneously.
The three igus delta arms fitted to the robot can destroy weeds simultaneously.

The next stage is being able to take the proof of concept of the electric weeding system and convert that into a commercially viable robust service. Other novel farming and industrial applications of the robot using the igus delta arms are being explored. 

 

This marks a milestone in SRC’s collaboration with RootWave for weed zapping, grant-funded by Innovate UK. This also marks the successful conclusion of its ‘Wilma’ artificial intelligence weed recognition and ‘Tom’ weed mapping technology development project, also funded by Innovate UK. At £800,000, this was one of the largest single agritech grants made under its innovation scheme in 2018.

“The milestone we’ve hit is that we can now take action at the plant level,” said Andy Hall, head of prototyping, Small Robot Company. “Using artificial intelligence, the robots can recognise the weeds in the shot and target the robotic arm onto those weeds. At that point we can do anything we want. Our robotic platform incorporating the igus arm could have many different technologies bolted on – and the world’s our oyster on that.” 

Andrew Diprose, CEO, RootWave commented, “Our technology uses electricity to zap weeds with zero chemicals. Increased regulation, herbicide resistance, and consumer concerns are all intensifying the urgency to find an environmental solution. Partnering with Small Robot Company means we can automate our weed zapping to operate at farm-scale with renewable energy.”

Igus Low-Cost automation engineer Angelos Bitivelias has worked with universities and industrial companies on delta robots for applications like fruit picking, so he brings the knowledge of how the igus delta can be best modified for the weed killing application.

“The Dick robot moves to one side, a camera takes a photo of the weed, the AI identifies it as a weed, and then AI decides where to zap the weed,” says Angelos. “The kinematics of the delta makes it well suited to the end effector and the belt drive means the zapper is always parallel to the ground below.”

“The dream double bottom line for farming is increasing yields sustainably. For at least the last two decades farmers have been trying to increase yields while reducing damage to the environment,” said Sam Watson Jones, President and co-founder, Small Robot Company. “But the weed burden necessitates treatment – and unfortunately at the moment, we have a farming system which dictates a blanket approach. We went to farmers and said ‘you tell us what is the most important thing for us to solve’. Unanimously it came back ‘herbicide-resistant weeds, we just can’t control them.’”

SRC showed a pair of robots, ‘Tom’ and ‘Dick’, working in concert with its artificial intelligence Advice Engine ‘Wilma’ to identify and kill individual weeds with electricity.

SRC showed a pair of robots, ‘Tom’ and ‘Dick’, working in concert with its artificial intelligence Advice Engine ‘Wilma’ to identify and kill individual weeds with electricity.

£8 million 5G RuralDorset project: 5G robot for real-time action

The next generation Tom model will be going into 5G trials in Dorset in the autumn, in the £8 million 5G RuralDorset project, part funded by DCMS. Small Robot Company, Wessex Internet, Telint and Dorset Council are working together to deliver step-change in rural connectivity and agricultural productivity. The project will develop and prove a blueprint for rural-optimised 5G connectivity.

The ‘Dick’ robot will also participate in the trials. The robots will be the world’s first 5G ready agri-robots, thanks to a new research and development relationship with Qualcomm. These new 5G chips will explore uses of millimetre wave spectrum which will allow the robots to upload the huge amount of data they will gather in real-time. It will also allow them to ‘learn’ from each other by taking advantage of a complete dataset, rather than working in isolation. This saves time and battery resource and reduces the overall cost.

Dorset Council Deputy Leader Peter Wharf remarked: “Farming in rural areas such as Dorset is a way of life for communities. It is our hope that in making farming operations more sustainable through partnership with the Small Robot Company we can revolutionise not only the productivity of agricultural operations but also reduce its impact on the environment through novel uses of monitoring and weed control. In doing so we will make agriculture part of Dorset for generations to come.”

Tags : Robotics

The author:

Jack Mullen Editor of Farm Safely