Ag News

Small is good for Agriculture

  • By: "Prime" Ag News
  • Jun 19, 2018

Read how one start-up is developing robots that could change the face of agriculture.

Picture a farm, chequerboard fields, green shoots turning to gold, every inch lush with healthy crops – and not a tractor in sight. Not a bucolic dream of the pre-1930s, but a vision of the future, if Small Robot Company has its way. Bent on showing what farming would look like without heavy machinery, the start-up is challenging the industry adage that bigger is better.

In a sector where more land and larger machines are equated with increased profits, this is revolutionary thinking. But to founders Sam Watson-Jones and Ben Scott-Robinson, it’s also essential. The pair came separately to the conclusion that small is good, and are now united in their drive for miniature agriculture, using AI-enabled robots to nurture individual plants.

A fourth-generation farmer, Watson-Jones inherited the problem of how to keep his Shropshire farm going. “I was worried I would be the last generation, because our soil health was declining, and margins were getting worse. We were generating the same revenues and yields we had been for 30 years, while costs were increasing year on year. I also knew we could do a better job in terms of caring for the wider environment and reducing our impact.”

Watson-Jones wanted to make smarter use of technology to farm more efficiently and sustainably. “I saw a growing gap between what was technically possible, and what was happening on the farm.” A conversation with Professor Simon Blackmore at Harper Adams University revealed two things: using job-specific small robots for field tasks could solve problems around yield, profit and environmental damage; and nobody in the industry was interested in doing it.

“There needed to be an entrepreneurial company bridging what’s technically possible and what actually happens on the farm,” says Watson-Jones. “And I thought, that should be me.”

The green shoots of collaboration
Having planted that seed, Blackmore was also responsible for bringing Scott-Robinson into the fold. Hearing him on the radio, Scott-Robinson, then head of brand experience for Ordnance Survey, was blown away. “He was talking about how using tractors is so self-defeating and damaging. Technology’s come to a point where you don’t need industrial-scale production of food; you can be a lot more specific and use production methodologies from other industries. It was a light-bulb moment.”

A start-up veteran, Scott-Robinson knew he had to get involved. Blackmore directed him to Watson-Jones, and Small Robot Company was germinated. Their first challenge was getting farmers to buy in. After polling potential customers, they came to a surprising conclusion. “Farmers aren’t scared of new technology. They’re happy to adopt anything that will improve their bottom line, or reduce their impact. What they’re nervous of is being lumbered with a piece of high-tech kit that they can’t use,” says Scott-Robinson. “So we came up with ‘farming as a service’. Rather than saying ‘here’s a piece of technology that’ll answer one of your problems’, let’s deliver the crop for you. You pay per hectare, and once it’s ready, you roll out the combine harvesters.”

Watson-Jones sees a model that will chime with farmers. “Everyone has a story about being burnt by some form of technology, and that’s enabled us to articulate a point of difference. They don’t have to worry about the technology developing, and they don’t have to be experts.” And it’s as applicable to a small Scottish hill farm as to the wide fields of East Anglia. “Some of the best feedback that we’ve had is from smaller farmers; they’re really excited that they could access cutting-edge technology, and it wouldn’t be significantly more expensive to them than a bigger farmer,” says Watson-Jones.

Plant-by-plant crop care
Small Robot Company’s service comprises the provision and maintenance of a fleet of robots, which monitor and care for crops on a plant-by-plant basis, providing a real-time, digital view; weeding; applying nutrients; and micro-spraying fungicides or insecticides. “We based the idea on three robots, Tom, Dick and Harry: a monitoring robot, which lives on the farm; a crop-care robot; and a planting robot,” says Scott-Robinson. “But they can essentially be one robot with different attachments.”

It’s a unique system that will give farmers an in-depth understanding of their crops while cutting costs. “We’re looking to ultimately remove the need to use herbicides with laser weeding, and create a significant reduction in fungicides, insecticides and fertiliser,” says Watson-Jones. “There’s a huge amount of this stuff that doesn’t hit the target with big sprayers. If we just place a small amount exactly at the roots, we know it’s going to be taken up.”

“We wanted to develop something with the potential for the biggest impact. It’s about driving the digitalisation of the industry”
Sam Watson-Jones, co-founder, Small Robot Company

The small robots can also improve soil health and cut pollution by making ploughs redundant. “The whole purpose of ploughing is to remediate the damage you’re doing by compacting the soil by using a machine heavy enough to pull a plough,” says Scott-Robinson, highlighting the vicious circle of current methods. “We’re in this fantastic position of answering farmers’ needs, designing something that’s more accurate to save money but also has environmental benefits around improving soil health, stopping run-off pollution in rivers, and stopping heavy use of herbicides and pesticides.”

Their solution is focused on non-specialist, broad-acre arable. “Wheat and corn are very similar in the care they need over the course of the year, and the way they’re put into the ground,” says Scott-Robinson. “With a certain amount of modification we could also manage soya, or rice. It allows us to get involved in a significant proportion of the world’s food production.”

Asked if they’ll specialise, Watson-Jones says that supplying bespoke systems for niche crops isn’t the aim. “We wanted to develop something with the potential for the biggest impact. It’s about driving the digitalisation of the industry; and linked into that is using technology to its best effect to improve how we produce food.”

Securing funding to facilitate growth
Poetically, Small Robot Company will grow using seed funding from customers. “We’re recruiting a group of 30 farmers,” says Watson-Jones. “They’re putting in £5,000 pre-sale on our services, which helps us develop, and in return they get £10,000 of service, when the service is good enough to charge.”

Funding has also come from a £50,000 Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) prize, which includes the opportunity to work with the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. There, the company is developing robotic punch planting, allowing targeted sowing without ploughing, the root of plant-by-plant care. “Having that granular per-plant view starts where you’re putting each individual seed in the ground,” says Scott-Robinson.

In addition, a £1m Innovate UK grant is funding the development of the company’s AI operating system, Wilma. “We’re taking the information that Tom collects in the fields and passing that through a series of rules engines and AIs,” says Scott-Robinson. “It takes three years of data to be able to work properly.” The company is also working with Harper Adams on a weeding system, and with another university to build a prototype delivery robot.

Scott-Robinson says the IET grant proves their technology is “feasible and doable”, while the Innovate UK fund ties it to the government’s Industrial Strategy and the wider economy. But, above all, their validation comes from the agricultural community. “That they are willing to put money into this is proof that the messages on efficiency and precision, all the way through to the environmental benefits, are ringing true with the people who are going to put it into practice.”