Working with robots to transform farming

Tom the robot is being trialled at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire

Robots are revolutionising farming and we're putting them to the test at Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.

Find out how we're working with the Small Robot Company to tackle weeds, monitor crops and protect wildlife.

Tom, Dick and Harry are a trio of robots that along with Wilma, the digital brains behind them, could not only revolutionise the way we farm but also help us improve the health of the soil and look after nature. 

The robots are being developed by the Small Robot Company in Bristol to monitor crop health, seek out and destroy weeds, and plant seeds – and they’re being tested at Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.

Robot used for farming at Wimpole

Tackling weeds

Weeds are more of a challenge at Wimpole because the farm there is organic and therefore cannot rely on chemicals to control weeds. But Tom - the robot being tested at Wimpole - is proving to be very helpful when it comes to managing weeds. He is set an area to map and travels autonomously up and down the fields, taking photos of the crops and weeds in high resolution. The photos are stitched together and an algorithm distinguishes what’s wheat and what’s weed, creating a digital map of all the weeds in the field.

This type of analysis allows farmers to identify optimum plant density and helps reduce the need for herbicides, fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides, in that they can target application instead of giving a blanket approach.  

“This is truly a world-first. ‘Tom' revolutionises what's possible on a farm,' says Sam Watson-Jones, co-founder, Small Robot Company. 

'Farmers are integral to the environmental solution. It's crucial that we're working on farm to develop our technology, to ensure it delivers real benefits in field. Together, we're creating the ultimate sustainable farming model.'

The basic premise is that 95 per cent of chemicals used in farming are unnecessary, according to the Small Robot Company.

‘Imagine that a robot could be sent out into a field to find where the weeds are, and comes back with their precise coordinates,’ says farm manager Callum Weir. ‘Instead of spraying the entire field with expensive herbicide, you only blitz the places you need to.’

" The 3rd Earl of Hardwick created Wimpole Home Farm as a demonstration farm, using the latest machinery to improve efficiencies and increase yields. Today, our goal is to improve biodiversity and soil health, but the spirit of innovation lives on.’"
- Callum Weir, farm manager

Robots could also help farms save money as they can be used in place of heavy duty farming equipment, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and soil erosion caused by tractors. And in the future robots might be able to plant different seeds in the same field, attracting bees and increasing biodiversity.

Moving away from pure monoculture – just one variety of crop in a field – has many benefits.

'Take peas and wheat for example – if you can grow both in one field, the peas fix nitrogen into the soil, which helps the wheat grow,' explains Callum. 

'The pea flowers attract bees, increasing biodiversity. With weather becoming more extreme and unpredictable, it’s harder to know what will grow well, so having more than one crop improves farms’ resilience.’

Rob Macklin, the National Trust’s head of farming and soils, said: “It is much quoted that unsustainable agriculture could result in only 60 harvests left largely due to soil degradation, erosion, loss of organic matter and biological health. Robots such as ‘Tom’ can help – but as a profession we need to do much more, to regenerate soils to ensure sustainable production going forward.”