Small Robot Co launches robot services to 50 farms this autumn

A major milestone for our small robots: our Tom monitoring robots will be set to work this Autumn. 50 farms will become home to our sustainable robots, delivering our first services for Per Plant Farming: applications by exception. These autonomous scanning robots will help farmers make informed decisions on how to take action, cutting herbicides and fertilisers. 

Co-designed with 35 farmer advisors and trial customers, including the Waitrose Leckford Estate, the Sainsbury family Lockerley Estate and the National Trust Wimpole estate, we are excited to see our technology in action commercially this growing season. This is a big step forward in delivering real value to farmers. Partnering with leading John Deere dealer Tuckwells, we have integrated Tom’s treatment maps with existing precision sprayers, saving around 77% of herbicide, and estimated 15% fertiliser savings. This will help farm businesses become both more environmentally and financially sustainable. 

Transforming farming at the plant level 

We see our bigger picture mission as helping farmers feed the world whilst regenerating the planet. Through the creation of a new farming model ‘Per Plant Farming’, we are making it possible to give farmers the confidence to only take action when it is required. Working with farmers to transform the system from the plant level, our sustainable farming robots Tom, Dick and Harry bring an entirely new way of farming. 

Using robotics and AI, we autonomously monitor and treat each crop plant. This means problem weeds can be targeted individually, as opposed to the whole field. This new model enables a highly precise approach to farming, which today is more important than ever before, as farmers face the volatility of the industry. Farmers are under increasing pressure, with input costs on the rise. Research from Harper Adams shows that up to 90% of inputs are wasted. 

This is not economically or environmentally viable. 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. Ultimately, input costs and environmental impact will be significantly minimised.

Commercial Service Launch 

Our first commercial robots will soon be seen scanning across fields this 2022-2023 growing season. The service will optimise farmer’s existing sprayer equipment to reduce costs and inputs. Per Plant Intelligence from our Tom monitoring robot means we treat only the problem areas: nutrient deficiencies, and weeds. Scanning the field, our Tom robot builds an understanding of where every plant is and what each one needs to achieve optimal performance. The data that is collected is then processed and detected by ‘Wilma’, our AI Advice Engine. 

Wilma then creates treatment maps to advise farmers on the most appropriate 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. This gives farmers the confidence to take action only when required or even make ‘no spray’ decisions. The 2022 service is fully subscribed, with 2023 orders now underway. 50 farms have signed up to our ‘Farming as Service’, with groups of up to six local farmers joining together to form a ‘Pod’ of 120 ha. 

They will share a Tom robot, committing a minimum of 20ha each. This means farmers can try out the service on as little as 20ha, without a costly machinery outlay. Each farm will receive 4 scans of their wheat fields during a season. The new service offering will target winter wheat crop count and Per Plant visualisation; weed detection, geolocation and per plant imagery; glyphosate treatment sprayer export; herbicide treatment sprayer export; and fertiliser treatment sprayer export. The launch follows the successful on-farm trials on three farms during the Autumn 2021 to 2022 growing season to develop the service. 

These trials included Waitrose Leckford Estate and the Lockerly Estate, owned by the Sainsbury family. The trials covered 118ha, locating 446M wheat plants in which 4.6M weeds were identified. 

Precision weed control 

The weed surveys conducted over the season by SRC highlighted the fact that a blanket approach to treating weeds is not only costly but often unnecessary. The surveys found that only a few areas were high in density: surprisingly only a few areas had weed density of more than weed/m². We then used this information to create heat maps, meaning farmers can treat only the problem areas, precisely. Our service enables farmers to assess weed density information for no spray decisions, and to reduce herbicide use by around 77% at a conservative estimate, depending on weed density and distribution.

Optimising crop nutrition 

Farmers can also assess crop health and performance, reducing fertiliser costs by around 15%, as well as optimising crop nutrition. These are achieved through a combination of data including accurately gauging green area index and plant populations. The radical change here is that our monitoring service now allows for application by exception, rather than blanket precautionary measure. By also being precise in targeting weeds, our robots also help farmers protect biodiversity, preserving the natural environment, in particular strengthening soil health, which is essential to encourage optimal crop yield. Longer term there is considerable potential for far greater savings. With rising fertiliser costs coupled with the industry attention on Net Zero, this has been in the spotlight, and is a strategic focus for our future roadmap. Fertiliser alone is a major contributor to agricultural emissions. This could have a huge contribution to reducing costs and carbon footprint, with no loss of crop productivity. 

A robot’s eye view 

Tom’s eight on-board cameras, mounted on a boom, deliver a ground sample distance of 0.39mm per pixel. Among the highest resolution of any crop-scanning technology, this gives Tom the capability to see individual water droplets on leaves and early signs of disease outbreak. SRC’s Tom monitoring robot scans the crop to a level of detail that identifies individual plants, gathering data on plant and weed distribution to determine the optimum treatment path. 

Tom will accurately geolocate and analyse data on every plant in the field. Tom can successfully identify all the wheat plants, determining precise plant counts, as well as broadleaf weeds. With a survey speed of 2.2ha/hr, Tom gathers 15,000 images from its cameras, or 40Gb of per plant intelligence, for every hectare. 

Tuckwells partnership 

To develop the sprayer integration we partnered with Tuckwells, one of the UK’s leading John Deere dealerships, which has a focus on industry-leading design and technology. In trials completed last spring, we created a treatment map for Tuckwells’, covering a 14.5ha field in Suffolk, achieving a 97% saving of an early spring herbicide. The trial data was run through JD’s Operation Centre and the treatment map for herbicide in wheat supplied to a Mazzoti sprayer with individual nozzle control over its 36m boom. 

The trial found that only 3% of the field actually needed to be sprayed (0.42ha), resulting in a herbicide saving of £24.48/ha. If the field had been treated with a JD R962i sprayer with 3m sectional control, it would have sprayed 13% of the field area, saving £21.96/ha. Another advantage for farmers is knowing how much will need to be applied before filling up the sprayer – what is put in the tank is what you use, nothing will be wasted. “We’ve been looking for the next innovation in precision application of herbicides and robotics seems to be the way forward,” says George Whelan, Tuckwell’s Group Technologies Manager, who coordinates their new technologies. “Weed identification is the key and the AI element is the most exciting part. 

We can use the data from Wilma to create an application map and deliver real in-field solutions.” 

Co-designed with Farmers 

These results highlight the extensive potential for robotics within farming today. This will have a huge impact for farmers, reducing input costs, this in turn both increasing and optimising yields, whilst protecting the natural environment. 

Our service is designed by farmers for farmers to create a farming system without compromise. Working with farmers to inform the developments of our technology has been invaluable. These close partnerships of more than 5 years with our farmer advisors has enabled us to accurately pin-point the challenges and pain points to tackle providing a wealth of information. The foundations of our service are based on the farmer; technology should not take control, but rather work in partnership with farmers. 

Accelerating regenerative 

We believe these systematic changes in farming today are crucial in progressing towards regenerative farming practices. Stewardship for our soil health and the natural environment today is essential to ensure future generations can produce high quality crops both profitably and sustainably. Now is the time for us to work together to create a more ecologically harmonious farming model. For farmers – rightly – to be rewarded for their efforts. Farmers are integral to the environmental solution. We’re excited to see our technology get to work on farms this season, but this is only the beginning. The potential is endless. Technological innovation will be a keystone in the Fourth Agricultural Revolution, and we’re honoured that our small robots are part of this revolutionary change. Helping build the food system of tomorrow.