AI-enabled robots, crop spraying drones and smart machine vision systems are just some of the technologies driving what some are calling the fourth agricultural revolution. Andrew Wade reports.
At the inaugural Future Farming Technology event, held recently in Birmingham’s NEC, the primary message was loud and clear: agriculture in its current state is broken. Practices largely unchanged since the 1960s have seen arable farming in particular stagnate and yields across the globe plateau. Farmers paint a picture of an industry over reliant on chemicals and gigantic machinery that’s squeezing the life out of once-rich soils. But a wave of new technology is helping the sector reverse the decline.
“We’re part of a global trend in how farming is changing,” said Sam Watson-Jones, co-founder of UK agritech startup, Small Robot Company (SRC). “We think that arable farming in its current form doesn’t work.”
As a fourth-generation Shropshire farmer, Watson-Jones is speaking from experience. He says yields have remained static for more than a quarter of a century, despite the UK using over a million tonnes of herbicides and fungicides each year.
“The third agricultural revolution is what we’re living through today,” he said. “It’s defined by chemicals, it’s defined by fertiliser, it’s defined by big, heavy tractors. But it’s no longer working for farmers and we need something new to take us into the future.
“The fourth agricultural revolution, by contrast, can be defined by swarms of small, smart machines and minimal, or no, cultivation at all.”
The huge tractors, sprayers and harvesters deployed on farms around the world are compacting soils and depleting nutrients, pushing farmers into a feedback loop where they’re forced to use ever more intensive methods. Downsizing the machinery not only protects the soil, it allows farmers to cultivate on a much more granular scale, attending to individual plants in what’s known as precision farming.
“We’re moving away from thinking about our fields, to gathering data and taking action on the individual plant – every single plant in your field,” said Watson-Jones.
It’s a concept that’s been championed for over a decade by Professor Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University in Shropshire, and one that inspired Watson-Jones and co-founder Ben Scott-Robinson to launch Small Robot Company in 2017. Their robots Tom, Dick and Harry respectively look after field monitoring, weeding/cultivation, and planting.
Of the three, Tom is at the most advanced stage of development, due to enter commercial service this growing season. Its latest iteration was launched at Future Farming Technology, boasting a double camera system that increases monitoring capacity to four metres squared. According to SRC, Tom can cover around 20 hectares per day, feeding individual plant data back to an artificial intelligence system known as Wilma, which helps farmers interpret the information.
“The robots are automating things, but Wilma is the brains behind the operation,” explained Watson-Jones. “She’s the bit that is really going to cause the shift to a new way of farming.”
Alongside the revamped Tom, SRC also unveiled a commercial service for weed mapping, a world-first according to the company. Heat maps of broadleaved weeds will allow farmers to spray more effectively as well as shape future planting decisions. Further down the line, it’s envisaged that Dick will both feed and weed autonomously, micro-spraying based on data and analysis from Tom and Wilma. Harry, the planting robot, is still at the prototype stage. All three will operate under a service package where the company will charge by the hectare to manage plots of land, avoiding the need for farmers to make large up-front investments.
SRC is also working with a Warwickshire-based firm called Rootwave that uses an electrically charged metal arm to boil weeds from the inside, killing them from the root up. It’s all part of a plan to transition from mass application of chemicals to highly targeted use, and perhaps one day no chemicals at all.
“Reducing inputs is really important,” said Jamie Butler, a dairy and arable farmer who has taken part in trials with SRC. “Obviously, for farming economics, but also it is absolutely the way forward for the environment, for soil health and management…I’d say that 90 per cent of the chemicals and fertilisers that we’re putting on (our fields) probably aren’t necessary and could be significantly reduced with the right technology.”
Butler echoes Watson-Jones’s sentiments on farming’s wider problems. Despite being an early adopter of technology, he has had to diversify the Hampshire farm he runs with his brother, offering glamping, self-storage and corporate fly-fishing to supplement the traditional income from crops and livestock.
“In some respects, I think the outputs on farms are – maybe not as high as they can go, they could go higher – but I’m not convinced that farmers would see the profit in that,” he explained.
“We’d just be supplying an oversupplied market. Why do we need to produce more? Actually, what we need to do is produce more efficiently.”
UK markets may currently be oversupplied, with big retailers squeezing farmers’ margins to the limit, but tomorrow’s food security is more fragile. It’s estimated that the global population will hit 10 billion by 2050 – around 2.5 billion more mouths to feed than today. If chemical-heavy farming and monster machinery persists, soils could eventually be pushed past the point of no return. Combined with the added threat that climate change poses to land use, the status quo simply has to shift.
“I think precision farming is going to be an absolute revolution, with autonomous vehicles and also with weed identification,” said Butler.
“At the moment we’re not there, but if people like Small Robot realise their dream, we will be there.”
SRC is by no means the only UK outfit championing technology as a solution to agriculture’s problems. Since October 2016, Harper Adams University – to where many of Small Robot’s ideas can be traced – has been running a research project on autonomous farming, using small, retrofitted tractors and harvesters alongside drones and AI.
Precision farming is going to be an absolute revolution, with autonomous vehicles and also with weed identification – Jamie Butler, Farmer
Known as the Hands Free Hectare, the project produced its first crop of spring barley in September 2017, with six tonnes of winter wheat following a year later. In May 2019 the project was extended for another three years, scaling from a single ‘perfect’ hectare to 35 hectares across five different fields, and relabelled as the Hands Free Farm.
“They’re fields that have not had any adjustments from standard agriculture,” Jonathan Gill, a mechatronics engineer at Harper Adams and one of the project leaders, told The Engineer.
“We’ve got five fields, all of which have got non-straight headlands. The most challenging…has got telegraph poles, it’s got a public right of way through the centre of it, it’s undulating, it’s got four different soil types.”
Whereas SRC has purpose-built robots from scratch, the Harper Adams team has taken a different approach, customising existing, compact machinery with technology that allows it to farm autonomously. For the Hands Free Farm, a second Iseki tractor has been added to the fleet, alongside a Claas combine with a much smaller footprint than their previous harvester. Existing partner Precision Decisions is managing control systems and route planning, with new project member FarmScanAG adding autonomous capabilities.
“What we’re really looking at is the smart implement level, the implements and the machinery that goes on to the vehicle,” said Gill. “The new technology of grow systems, the new technology of bailing, and everything in between.”
According to Gill, the leap from a single, fenced hectare to a messy 35 hectares will really put the technology through its paces. For the original hectare, the team set themselves the challenge of planting, tending and harvesting with absolutely no human presence allowed in the field. The Hands Free Farm will take a more practical approach, agronomists and students working in tandem with the autonomous machinery, taking soil samples manually and making some decisions the old-fashioned way.
“I’d never really want to stop a farmer or agronomist going on the land and actually making decisions, so we’re not going to do that,” said Gill. “What we’d like to do is provide additional tools to help them do it.
“It’s got a lot more sensible, it’s got a lot more professionalism behind the entire project to actually try and operate something on a routine basis instead of it just being like a feasibility study. This is not about the feasibility anymore, it’s more about the proof of capability of autonomous farming.”
Part of that proof will involve drawing up a realistic picture of the economics and seeing where autonomy can potentially generate savings. Data from all vehicles in relation to run times, distance and fuel consumption will be collated and crunched. For crop data, new partner Pix4dFields has come on board to provide a drone system that will capture regular updates from above the fields.
Gill, a drone specialist himself, believes UAVs will play a crucial role in the coming agricultural revolution, and not just for monitoring. He points to the example of XAG, a Chinese manufacturer of precision spraying drones that have been deployed across two million hectares in China this year. It’s a technique that’s not currently permitted in the UK by the Chemicals Regulation Division (CRD), something that Gill thinks must change.
“A drone can literally fly at a lower height than a boom can operate at and deliver a chemical at a higher precision than most standard sprayers,” he explained. “A spray drone doesn’t have the same precision as a single nozzle-controlled sprayer, but it’s that middle ground in between, and the price of the technology is so much cheaper and it doesn’t cause any compaction.”
Drone spraying also opens up the possibility of cultivation when ground is saturated and farmers can’t get a traditional sprayer into the field.
“There are perfect capabilities for these drones to actually operate and work within those environments,” said Gill, “but we’re being prohibited by our regulation system preventing us actually operating these vehicles.”
The countryside we have today is a complete product of the 3rd agricultural revolution – Sam Watson-Jones, SRC
Drones are ideal for monitoring broad acre crops like wheat and corn, but keeping track of individual fruits and vegetables requires technology in the trenches. Mamut, developed by engineers at Cambridge Consultants, is a compact four-wheeled robot that travels through fields collecting and analysing data. Using stereo cameras, LIDAR, an inertial measurement unit, a compass, wheel odometers and onboard AI, it can navigate new environments autonomously, providing a real-time picture of crop-health at ground level.
“Fruits and vegetables – in particular citrus fruits – you can’t see what’s happening from above because it’s covered by the canopy,” explained Niall Mottram, head of Agritech at Cambridge Consultants. “And there aren’t enough hours in the day for someone to walk up and down the rows of an orchard or a vineyard to count grapes or apples.”
Central to Mamut’s effectiveness is its ability to operate independent of GPS or radio infrastructure, as well as its machine vision and AI that analyses crop data without the need for external computation.
“That kind of AI on the edge, where you don’t need to use lots of cloud compute platform power – because that’s not practical in an agriculture environment, you don’t have the real-time connectivity – that kind of approach is key if you’re going to see that AI jump out of the data centre and into the field to deliver some benefit,” said Mottram.
Mamut’s role is limited to analysis, but Cambridge Consultants has taken the next logical step of edge computing and built a system that can act on the insights in real-time. Fafaza is a precision crop spraying technology that not only spots broadleaved weeds, but also accurately delivers herbicide on the same pass. This type of ‘green on green’ plant recognition is challenging, with computation previously outsourced to the cloud. Having the computing on the edge means a single system can detect the problem and deal with it instantly.
What’s more, Fafaza is built to work with off-the-shelf components such as a basic camera that captures 20 frames per second and an AI processor that costs less than £100. The system can be deployed on the back of a vehicle, identifying and spraying weeds at ‘tractor speed’.
“If you’re able to spot spray those weeds, there’s an excellent economic benefit because you’re using less herbicide, and there’s obviously that massive environmental benefit at the same time, because you’re not over spraying and getting run-off,” said Mottram.
The benefits of precision farming – whether by smart implements or robots – could go far beyond minimising chemical inputs and have much wider implications, reshaping not just the way we cultivate crops, but physically reshaping the lay of the land itself.
“The countryside we have today is a complete product of the 3rd agricultural revolution,” said SRC’s Sam Watson-Jones. “It’s big square fields where lots of hedges have been taken out.
“When you can get to a point where you can individually harvest a plant, why couldn’t you have multiple commercial crops alongside each other? Why couldn’t you have things that ripened at different times?”
Precision harvesting technology isn’t quite there yet, but it could be the final piece of the puzzle, allowing the fundamentals of farming to be rewritten. Different crop varieties could be co-planted to combat disease or encourage pollination, changing the entire face of the agricultural landscape. According to Watson-Jones, it’s a revolution that farming must embrace.
“It’s about completely reimagining the way that we use our soil to produce food.”