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Transforming farming with the Small Robot Company

A small, four-wheeled orange robot standing in a field with a green crop growing
The latest version of 'Tom', a robot developed by our partners the Small Robot Company | © Small Robot Company

Robots are revolutionising farming and we’re putting them to the test at Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire. Discover how we’re working with an innovative agri-tech partner to tackle weeds, monitor crops and protect wildlife.

The Small Robot Company: meet the 'staff'

Tom, Dick and Harry are a trio of robots that – along with Wilma, the digital brains behind them – could revolutionise the way we farm, as well as improving the health of the soil and looking 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 on the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.

Tackling weeds

Weeds are more of a challenge at Wimpole because the farm is organic, so farmers can’t rely on chemicals to control weeds. But robot Tom is proving very helpful when it comes to managing weeds.

He’s 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.

A golden close-up view of a barley crop
Barley growing on the estate at Wimpole | © National Trust Images/Catherine Hayburn

Working with farmers to cut chemicals

According to the Small Robot Company, 95 per cent of chemicals used in farming are unnecessary. A robot can come back with weeds’ precise coordinates, and instead of spraying the entire field with expensive herbicide, you only spray the places you need to.

This is truly a world-first. “Tom” revolutionises what's possible on a farm. Farmers are integral to the environmental solution. It’s crucial that we’re working on farms to develop our technology, to ensure it delivers real benefits in the field. Together, we're creating the ultimate sustainable farming model.

A quote by Sam Watson-JonesSmall Robot Company, co-founder

Spirit of innovation

The 3rd Earl of Hardwick created Wimpole’s 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.

Robots could also help farms save money as they replace heavy-duty farming equipment, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and the 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.

View across an arable field with blue skies
View across the arable fields on the Wimpole Estate in autumn | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

The move away from monoculture

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

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

It’s much quoted that unsustainable agriculture could leave us with only 60 years of harvests, largely due to soil degradation, erosion, loss of organic matter and biological health. Robots like Tom can help – but as a profession we need to do much more, to regenerate soils and ensure sustainable production.

A quote by Rob MacklinNational Trust, Senior National Farming Consultant
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