All sectors are adopting Industry 4.0 technologies, which range from artificial intelligence to robotics and machine learning.
But when Sam Watson-Jones, a fourth-generation farmer, returned to the family business a decade ago, he found the farming sector had been left behind somewhat.
“When I went to a field and decided it was the right time to apply fertilizer…that same decision-making process would be recognized by my great-grandfather cultivating the same land in the 1940s: a lot of it was instinct and experience.”
That wasn’t the only concern. His family farm had been producing the same yields for 30 years, while agflation increasingly took away more of the profits. Currently in the UK, agflation is around 30% per year.
The farm’s impact on the environment was another concern, the entrepreneur explained at Forward Fooding’s agri-tech event in London. “I quickly understood that the company, as it existed, had major problems. He didn’t have much of a future unless something big changed.
For Watson-Jones, it all came down to one thing: “The industry was not using technology to make better decisions.” With co-founder Ben Scott-Robinson, Watson-Jones founded The Small Robot Company – a start-up working to rectify the decision-making process with a concept they coined “plant farming”.
What is “plant farming”?
“Plant farming is the ability to go to any field and collect data on each plant, then be able to process each plant individually,” explained Watson-Jones, who is president of the company. As its name suggests, the start-up proceeds with small robots on the ground.
So-called per-plant agriculture is first centered on data collection, which The Small Robot Company calls “per-plant intelligence”. A ground robot moves through a field – The Small Robot Company started with wheat, but aspires to work with all major crops – and takes high resolution images.
With the help of AI, software determines if weeds are present in the field (as well as their precise geolocation). Crop health can also be checked and any potential disease or pest problems reported. “All of these things can be detected from a single image”, explained Watson-Jones.
From ‘intelligence per plant’, the system moves to ‘action per plant’. The Small Robot Company creates a treatment map for sprayers, allowing them to apply chemicals “much more precisely”. A farmer can decide not to use chemicals, in which case a lightweight robot can ‘zap’ the weeds instead. “These are projects that we have in the works right now.”
A service per hectare for farmers
The Small Robot Company is already working in partnership with farmers to use chemicals more efficiently in the field. The company sells its service by the hectare.
Historically, if a farmer spots a few weeds, he’ll likely spray an herbicide all over the field, Watson-Jones suggested. By geotagging the position of each weed in the field and spraying “per plant”, however, they can end up spraying as little as 3% of the field, saving 97% of their herbicide.
“It can have a transformative impact on the costs incurred to produce these crops, and of course have a massive environmental impact. Think of the huge volume of chemicals we waste that never come into contact with a weed.
“The same is true when we apply fertilizers or fungicides. Farmers massively abuse it [chemicals] because they didn’t have a better way to collect data. This is what we have tried to solve with a structured and detailed dataset.
Farmers have been working the land for a long time, for about 12,000 years to be precise. Are they ready to embrace next-gen technology, or are they sticking to “instinct and experience”?
Watson-Jones thinks perceptions are changing. “During the last years [attitudes] transformed… When we started this in 2017, we spent time convincing farmers that this [transition] was needed. I never have those conversations again.
The co-founder attributes this to a growing awareness of the environmental impact of conventional farming and rising input costs. “It is widely accepted that this technology is needed to provide more stable business models.”
Agrochemical partnerships and next steps
Farmers are not the only customers of The Small Robot Company, however. The start-up is also looking to partner with agrochemical companies. The leaders in this sector are Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science, BASF and Corteva.
Agrochemical companies have the potential to become “really great partners” in The Small Robot Company, Watson-Jones explained. Why? The reason is at least twofold: these companies want to “get closer” to the farmer customer; and they seek to be paid for results, rather than by volume of chemical.
By doing so, they might be able to extend the life of their existing wallets while still increasing their income in the face of tougher regulations.
At the same time, The Small Robot Company expects to be able to help these companies advance their R&D efforts, we were told.
The Small Robot Company is currently in partnership with around 20 farms in the UK, but expects that number to increase “quite significantly” in the next year. Although he currently sells his product as a service, that model could also change in the new year for farmers who would prefer to own the machines themselves.
In terms of technological developments, Watson-Jones expects the next steps will see its systems not only detect weeds in the field, but be able to identify specific weed species. Having this information will give farmers the option of leaving some weeds if they prefer, rather than eradicating them all. “Not all of them cause a particular problem.”
The co-founder continues: “The same approach will support more precise applications of fungicides and fertilizers, as we begin to develop these models.”
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