Eighteenth Century farm embraces robot revolution

Press release
An orange wheeled robot in a field
Published : 04 Dec 2019

An 18th century National Trust farm is at the forefront of trialling the latest robotic technology that could transform the way we farm in the future.

Wimpole Farm in Cambridgeshire is trialling robots which can take photos of individual plants to create digital weed maps.  In time it will also test ‘bots’ that can ‘zap’ weeds, and even plant seeds, in a bid to help improve the environmental performance of modern farming.  

These innovations are particularly important following October’s State of Nature report which highlighted land management as one of the drivers of species loss.

Benefits of the technology include reducing soil compaction through minimising the use of heavy machinery, tackling climate change by reducing emissions with electric power and increasing efficiency by maximising yields through artificial intelligence and GPS mapping.

Although the mapping technology and ‘Tom’ robot is still in a trial commercial phase, it is hoped to be rolled out for commercial use by 2021 and is the first time anywhere in the world farmers are able to have a per plant view of their fields.

Designed by the British agri-tech start-up the Small Robot Company, ‘Tom’ (also nicknamed by National Trust staff as Seed-3PO) can cleverly identify and map weeds by using artificial intelligence, geolocation and image processing. It can map 20 hectares a day, autonomously, distinguishing plants at a minute scale.

The ‘Tom’ robot is approximately 1.8 x 1.2 metres in size, weighs 150kg, is robust and weather proof and can be used all year round.  In comparison, traditional tractors are approximately 12m x 2.5m and weigh around 7 metric tonnes.  This weight causes damage to land due to compaction, which is made worse if tractors are used in wet weather.

Damaged soil requires a lot more horse power to repair it by breaking it up again – which means big heavy tractors are needed which then causes more compaction.

Next year, a second robot called ‘Dick’ will be trialed at the farm that will locate weeds and kill them using an electric probe, designed by Rootwave, therefore eradicating the need for herbicides, which can damage the environment.  

Callum Weir, farm manager of the 1,500 acre (600 hectare) organic farm on the Wimpole Estate says: “The key advantage of this ground-breaking technology is that it will enable us to be much more precise and targeted in controlling weeds, therefore helping us to increase crop yields and biodiversity.  It is also lightweight, helping reduce compaction of soils – a consequence of using traditional tractors - which will help improve soil health. 

“The other key advantages are the ability to identify issues such as slugs and optimising plant spacing to improve yields.  In future we’ll also be able to map areas of environmental interest such as ground nesting birds in order to help protect their nesting sites.”

Rob Macklin, the National Trust’s head of farming and soils said: “Technology needs to play a big part in solving many of the issues we currently face in farming – particularly improving soil health and carbon sequestration, reducing our reliance on fossil fuel power and fertilisers and avoiding the adverse impacts of synthetic chemicals on the environment.

“As the country’s largest conservation charity, along with our 1,700 farm tenants and graziers we are one of the country’s biggest farmers.  We want to encourage nature friendly farming practices – and we have to lead by example and embrace innovations.  We have started small robot trials at Wimpole but intend to extend trials to other estates in near future.

“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.”

The service is launching with the ability to map broadleaved weeds and emerging wheat. 

The ‘Tom’ robot is able to map fields by sending its data back to ‘Wilma’ which is the artificial intelligence part of the operation.  Wilma is able to stitch together the maps and analyse data which building year on year will enable farmers to identify optimum plant density and help farmers reduce inputs such as 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 farm. For the first time, we can see each plant in the field - and every single weed. So instead of spraying the whole field, we will simply zap the individual weeds”' 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."

At commercial launch for the weed killing service in 2021, the ‘Tom’ monitoring and ‘Dick’ weed killing robots will be available for hire.  The technology is predicted to lift farmer revenues by up to 40 per cent, and reduce costs by up to 60 per cent.  

Despite being one of the oldest farms run by the National Trust, Wimpole, which was built in 1790 by the 3rd Earl of Hardwick who was a pioneer in agriculture development, is today at the forefront of modern-day techniques.  In addition to the trials it is also experimenting with diverse cropping, minimum-tillage cultivations, GPS driven tractors and integrating livestock and arable farming.  Being organic, its focus is also on soil health and going beyond net zero ambitions with carbon sequestration.