At Rockery’s real estate, a robot called Tom is slowly but steadily moving through 650 hectares of arable farmland. The autonomous robot, which weighs only 150 kg, moves on four wheels with an orange splash on a metal frame that is 1.8 meters long. A powerful, front-mounted double camera at the end of Toms’ long crane-like lever scans individual wheat plants protruding from Hampshire soil.
Designed by the British startup Small Robot Company, the robot can travel up to 20 hectares daily in this way, collecting about 6 terabytes of data on which parts of wheat can be devastated by weeds. I will. You can see the entire field of destroyed crops. When Tom is done, it’s Dick’s turn. A spider-like bot Dick armed with five canes can electrocut all weeds detected with a small amount of smoke and zero chemicals.
For Craig Livingstone, who has managed Rockery’s real estate for the past five years, trying Tom and Dick for the past 12 months has been a huge boon. Since his arrival, the farm has combined crop rotation, agriculture (soil research), and herds of over 1,000 grazing sheep to reduce pesticide use by 41% and fertilizer use by 32%.
All of this saves time and money and helps protect the environment. But where does the next 40% reduction come from? Livingston asks. For me, it’s with the help of robots. Their help does not come immediately to British agriculture, he added. This is the second month of the biggest decade facing British agriculture. If we are not in a position to embrace and consider new technologies right now, we will fall behind.
About 150,000 farms in the UK are currently facing a storm of full pressure. Some threats have accumulated over decades, such as the damage caused by climate change. In the face of harsher weather and the epidemic of pests and diseases, British farmers are now promising an ambitious net zero carbon target by 2040. Others are more recent developments. In the case of Brexit, for example, UK farmers face double losses on EU subsidies, both millions and thousands of seasonal workers. It is difficult to measure the exact size of this fluctuating temporary workforce, but it is estimated to be around 64,000 in 2016, 99% of which come from the EU.
By 2018, two years after Britain’s resolution to withdraw from the European Union, desperate farmers had stood in front of a special committee of parliamentarians to warn of an unprecedented worsening labor shortage. At Kobray Farm in Herefordshire, 90% of 1,100 seasonal workers were hired from Poland and Latvia before the 2016 referendum. By 2018, owner Chris Chin said the number of Polish applicants had dropped to just 50. Since 2021, the government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers System (SAWS) has tripled the number of people allowed to the UK for temporary work, although it is still insufficient.
The new coronavirus pandemic made things worse. According to the National Farmers’ Union’s Agricultural Representative, there are thousands of vacancies in fields, polytunnels, greenhouses and greenhouses, which not only eases restrictions on the spread of travel suffered by farmers, but also from British supermarkets. Is becoming more dependent on local ingredients. To avoid repeated turmoil in 2020. In other words, it means an increase in demand due to a reduction in personnel.
Mark Gray, UK and Ireland manager for Universal Robots, a Danish robotics maker, said he had been working hard on problems in agriculture. But now I can’t do that. Robots are now offering hope that it may be possible to fill the gap while making agriculture more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Traditionally, the UK has been outdated when it comes to adopting automation. In 2018, there were more than 700 robots per 100,000 people in South Korea, the world leader, while in 2018 there were only 85 robots per 100,000 people. However, efforts are increasing to change that. Already worth 14 billion and employing about 500,000 people, the UK’s agricultural technology sector launched a 160 million agricultural technology strategy in 2013, with four new agricultural technology innovation centers and innovative Government support has increased significantly in recent years, including providing funding for several rounds. A project involving 24m reserved for robotics that could help agriculture increase sustainability in 2020. Previous recipients have included a robotic assistant that can pick and pack soft fruits, a vertical stacking system for London-based InFarm crops, and a wearable device for cows to track milk production. ..
Xihelm, a British startup run by former Google staff James Kent, received a government grant for Robot Glasshouse Harvester in 2018 and began commercial testing on the farm the same year. Today, the fifth generation of bots, Eagle, is running on sites such as Flavor Fresh Salads in Southport, which arrived in June 2020. In greenhouses where tomatoes are lined up, robotic arms use AI to locate clusters. The most ripe fruits before carefully pinching the stems and pulling them out.
For FlavorFresh, who usually relies on about 80 seasonal workers to harvest thousands of tonnes of tomatoes and berries, robots can be a great help in addressing all labor uncertainties, managing director Charmay Prout said. Stated. Usually we get a flash of crops where the fruits are ready to go, and if we don’t have enough people to choose, it results in high waste and ultimately to our profitability. It can have an impact, she explains. Robotics can tackle not only labor shortages, but also increased costs of hiring workers, with a 21% increase in national living wages since 2016. In addition, pests and diseases by limiting greenhouse staff. Workers no longer have to move from one area to the next during the harvest.
More and more British farmers understand the benefits of investing in robotics, says Peter Keeling, founder of agricultural research and development firm KMS Projects. Three years ago, I spoke to a group of farmers who didn’t understand why they wanted to robotize crop harvesting.Since then, almost all farmers [we speak to] I am on board. The company’s automated broccoli harvesters are waiting for final field trials before they’re ready to go on the market, but he says they have the potential to carry out the work of about six workers. Moreover, it is more efficient. Its three tractor-powered robotic arms are fitted with precision cutting tools that can harvest broccoli heads every three seconds, twice as fast as a manual picker.
But with all the potential benefits and all the current pressure on many British farms in many academia, the agricultural community itself is unlikely to soon see an army of bots managing British crops. is.
For one thing, both Brexit and pandemics cause labor shortages, but they also do a great job of diverting politicians from the type of investment or regulatory support needed to remove robotic alternatives from the ground. To do. Today, agricultural robots are on their way from prototypes to scalable technology, receiving a small portion of the funding of the entire agritech market (about 3% according to agritech venture capitalist AgFunder). For example, it took 12 years and over 250,000 to reach the final stage of the KMS automatic harvester.
Immediately after Brexit’s vote at the House of Lords hearing, Chief Judge’s adviser Richard Susskind warned that he would like to focus on the entire government at a time of greater technological progress than humanity has ever witnessed. did. Leading the way in leveraging these new technologies, most of our ministers are obsessed with leaving Europe.
Even if robots become available on a large scale, Brexit could put more pressure on the cash flow available on the farm and lose half of the basic payments received through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). There seems to be. This makes it difficult to invest in expensive new technologies that have not been proven. With automated pickers already on the market, farmers are returning to small autonomous bots with up to 200,000 or even 25,000.
Many UK farmers are small businesses that lack the capital needed to invest in this type of technology, says Fabian Wallace-Stephens, a senior researcher at think tank RSA. There are efforts to mitigate the risk of this large upfront investment by providing robotics as a service. It does not require the same level of upfront investment and is maintained by transaction fees.
For example, the Small Robot Company doesn’t ask people like Livingstone to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to Tom, Dick, and Harry (the third bot that can plant individuals) until 2024. We plan to provide robots as a service. Precisely drilled hole seeds). Keeling also predicts that large farms will need to employ robotics, but due to the area they work on, small farms, which occupy about two-thirds of European farms, will participate. If so, you will need more affordable options.
Livingstone agrees that robotics is not a quick solution. And he admits that this is a system change, a change of mindset, just as he wants to see a swarm of robots help manage crops. More than just deploying a robot is needed, and the problem is solved. Collaborate with robot makers in much the same way farmers have teamed up with pesticide makers and agronomists in the past as a way to increase yields and control weeds without having to grow plants manually. is needed. But he believes that changes are needed. Brexit, COVID, both are factors that make this different way of thinking. But I think this is just an evolution.
Digital Society is a digital magazine that explores how technology is changing society. Produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, all content is editorial independent. For more information on how technology is shaping the future of society, see Vontobel Impact.
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