New generation of robots could 'replace tractors'

The new generation of farmbots are designed to improve the way food is produced
The new generation of farmbots are designed to improve the way food is produced

Robotics experts have been working with farmers to develop a new generation of technology which could potentially replace tractors.

UK companies Manufacturing Technology Centre and the Small Robot Company have been working together to revolutionise farming and the way food is produced.

They are developing a new generation of agricultural technology which will bring the power and precision of robots to farming, potentially replacing tractors for many jobs.

The small digitally-controlled robots are able to plant, feed and weed arable crops autonomously with minimum waste and precision.

The farmbots are designed to improve the way food is produced, minimising chemical use, making farms more profitable while increasing yield and efficiency.

Prototypes of the robots have been produced and are carrying out field trials on 20 farms across the UK including the Waitrose Leckford Estate Farm and the National Trust's Wimpole Estate.

Funding for the project has come from Innovate UK and the MTC, boosted by £1.2 million in crowd-funding.

Highly accurate, smart, lightweight robots

The Small Robot Company, based in Hampshire, was established as an agri-tech start-up by digital entrepreneur Ben Scott-Robinson and fourth generation farmer Sam Watson Jones.

They were inspired by work at the National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams agricultural college which suggested that much of the work done by tractors could be done with a series of highly accurate, smart, lightweight robots.

Jeremy Hadall, chief engineer at the MTC, said the technology had the potential to make significant improvements in farm productivity and profitability.

MTC is developing the Small Robot Company's precision drilling and planting robot, which has the potential to improve yields, and therefore profits, while substantially reducing the use of chemicals.

“The technology harnesses manufacturing advances used in traditional manufacturing industries and allows exceptional accuracy, while creating a map showing the location of each seed,” he said.

“With growing populations and increasing challenges in farming, using ideas and technologies from other sectors will bring about real innovation and transform the way we feed ourselves in the future.”

Future of Food

It comes as the NFU released a new report earlier this year which said robots, vertical farms and virtual fencing could soon be the farming of the future.

It looks into the future to explore what the landscape of British food and farming will look like in 20 years.

The report highlights the importance of establishing a future domestic agricultural policy that enables the farming industry to increase its productivity in the future, which it says will be 'crucial for businesses to thrive in an increasingly volatile world'.

Three case studies showcase cutting-edge technologies which are already being developed to revolutionise the way farmers work by maximising productivity, data collection, precision and efficiency while benefitting the environment.

One of the case studies looks at how new technology could become commercially available offering alternative ways of controlling grazing livestock by keeping stock exactly where they are required using GPS and smartphone app developments.