In this digital era, disruptive technology is likely to play a major role in various industries. Farming is one of the oldest industries and now, is being transformed by digitization and new technologies. The cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), big data, machine learning (ML), internet of things (IoT), etc. are transforming the traditional farming method. However, the farming sector is still facing challenges due to the big machinery models like tractors, which are built for speed, not for precision. They are also hugely inefficient and damaging to the environment. According to Sam Watson Jones, a well-versed farmer and the Co-founder of Small Robot Company, such traditional methods of farming are not efficient today. Statistics suggests that 85% of UK farms are currently not viable without subsidy due to the extremely high cost of big machinery and its maintenance. Therefore, Sam’s concept of robotic farming brings a ray of sunshine for farmers. His company—Small Robot Company, an agri-tech startup has made this possible through its Farming-as-a-Service (FaaS) model where robots are offered as a service.
Believing in the Potential of Small Robots
Small Robot Company believes in a simple idea of using “small robots not big tractors”. These farming robots can improve crop yield and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. The company leverages robotics and AI to redefine farming and makes it more efficient, productive, and sustainable. In doing so, the agri-tech company has built robots that are smaller, lighter, and more agile than tractors. These robots will seed and care for each individual plant as well as feed and spray only when the plants need it. In this way, the plants receive the perfect levels of nutrients and support and there is no wastage of resources. In addition, they can also identify weeds, and kill them individually.
Small Robot Company’s Efficient Farming Robots
For digitized farming, the British startup company has built three small robots Tom, Dick, and Harry. These robots will seed, feed, and weed arable crops autonomously while working in combination with Wilma, their AI “nervous system”. The company has assigned every robot with chores to perform on the farm.
- Tom: Tom lives on the farm and monitors the field on a plant-by-plant basis as well as keeps track of the health and development of each plant.
- Dick: Dick lives back at Small Robot Central and micro-sprays each plant with fertilizers or chemicals as required to help it flourish. The robot also deals with weeds in three ways: 1st, micro-spraying a tiny amount of the chemical on the weed. 2nd, burning them with electricity, or 3rd, crushing the weed as it comes out of the ground.
- Harry: Harry lives at Small Robot Central and is the world’s first robotic drill for combinable crops. It records where it has planted every seed and passes this information to Wilma to make up the per-plant crop map. When Wilma tells Harry that an individual seed has not germinated, the robot is light and precise enough to replace it.
- Wilma: Wilma is the beating heart of the FaaS operating system and runs the show at the farm. It extracts the information from the crop data model, and in combination with its AI software, helps farmers make decisions. Wilma uses precise, up to date data from Tom and converts it into crop care instructions that can be verified by farmers and implemented by Dick and Harry.
Changing Tactics to Tackle Challenges Head-On
The biggest challenge faced by Small Robot Company is the adoption of its robotic farmers. The farmers they have spoken with immediately told them that while they loved the idea, they did not want any risk. Therefore, the company changed its tactic and decided to deliver its robots as a service instead of selling them to farmers. Now, the farmers will easily pay per hectare subscription fee for a robotic hardware service, which digitizes the farm and deliver crop care at per-plant precision.
Planning to Enhance Farming
As an agri-tech company, Small Robot Company has made some plans to enhance farming. The company aims to make its first service weed mapping, tailed by non-chemical weeding. Meanwhile, Sam and team are working on automating the entire process from knowing when to plant, to all aspects of crop care, to knowing when to harvest. Additionally, the company will be looking at delivering permaculture at scale using gardening tactics such as companion planting, but for broadacre crops in the future. By planting different crops alongside each other in the same field and harvesting at different times will help the farmers to improve food production and keep the soil fertile.
A Tech Specialist Farmer Transforming the Traditional Farming Methodology
After taking over the family farm business, Sam faced several problems due to the traditional and inefficient farming methods and struggled to make profit while balancing environmental concerns. Soon, he realized that if he does not change the poor way of farming, his farm would soon go out of business. This concern empowered Sam to bring Small Robot Company into existence.
Sam wanted to develop a solution that will lessen the burden of farmers. To achieve this, he needed to know the pain points of their current state and issues related to tractor-centered systems. Thus, Sam with his team formed a Farmer Advisory Group that helped them to develop useful technology in field trials. Presently, they are now in field trials in 20 farms across the UK, including the Waitrose Leckford Estate and the National Trust Wimpole Estate.
Today, as the Co-founder of Small Robot Company, Sam’s role is to ensure that his team works together in partnership with farmers and keep developing their technology to create a new model for sustainable and profitable farming. He is also working with farmers on their mindset while helping them to completely change the way they farm, how they even think about farming, and about themselves as farmers.
The Secret of Small Robot Company’s Success
“We’re the right idea at the right time. It is now technologically possible to farm with robots. This coincides with a feeling among farmers that farming needs urgent change.”___ Sam Watson Jones