Tuesday, May 21, 2024

New agricultural robots kill individual weeds with electricity

Small Robot Company (SRC), a British agritech startup for sustainable farming, has developed AI-enabled robots – named Tom, Dick and Harry – that identify and kill individual weeds with electricity. These agricultural robots could reduce the use of harmful chemicals and heavy machinery, paving the way for a new approach to sustainable crop farming.

The startup has been working on automated weed killers since 2017, and this April officially launched Tom, the first commercial robot currently operating on three UK farms. Dick is still in the prototype phase, and Harry is still in development.

Small Robot company says the robot Tom is capable of scanning around 20 Hectares per day, collecting about six terabytes of data in an 8-hour shift to identify the crops, spots undesirable weeds – using “Wilma,” an artificial intelligence operating system. This data can then be sent to Dick – the world’s first non-chemical robotic weeding system that zaps individual weeds with electrical ‘lightning strikes.’ And finally, Harry plants seeds in the weed-free soil.

New agricultural robots kill individual weeds with electricity.
Tom monitoring robot delivers per plant mapping to detect weeds. Credit: Small Robot Company

The monitoring robot is placed at a farm first, and the weeding and planting robots are delivered only when the data shows they’re needed. The British agritech promises farmers to reduce up to 40% of costs, 95% less chemical use, but also better soil quality and greater biodiversity.

In the future, Tom will also gather data from multiple sources, such as sensors and microphones for birdsong and pollinators, to assess soil health and biodiversity. The next-generation Tom also incorporates increased speed, 5K camera capacity, and extended battery life.

The ‘Dick’ robot prototype deploys RootWave non-chemical weeding technology mounted on an Igus delta robotic arm to zap the weeds.

New agricultural robots kill individual weeds with electricity.
Dick, the non-chemical robotic weeding system zaps individual weeds with electrical ‘lightning strikes’. Credit: Small Robot Company

The Dick robot moves to one side, a camera takes a photo of the weed, the AI identifies it as a weed, and then AI decides where to zap the weed,” says Angelos Bitivelias, Igus Low-Cost automation engineer. “The kinematics of the delta makes it well suited to the end effector, and the belt drive means the zapper is always parallel to the ground below.

Following the successful field trials this April, Tom, and Dick will now enter further trials in which the force required to destroy different types of weeds will be explored in greater detail.

This technology could be truly groundbreaking and has the potential to shape how we farm in the future. By helping us be more precise and targeted in controlling weeds and managing pests, this next generation of farming robots could, in turn, help us protect biodiversity on our land and preserve the natural environment for future generations,” said Andrew Hoad, Partner & Head of Waitrose’s Leckford Estate.

Tom is now delivered to commercial specification and will be scaled up to service 22,000 hectares in the UK in 2023 across more than 100 farms. It will then expand to cover 62,000 Hectares across the UK, North America, and South America in 2024.

This is a major technological milestone which will enable automated, precision, per-plant weeding both at scale and autonomously, for the first time providing a post-chemical future for arable farmers,” said Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO and co-founder, Small Robot Company, “We’ve now proved we can deliver per plant weeding: a world first. The focus for us now is being able to move forward to deliver this repeatedly and at scale. This will be game-changing.