Small Robot Company previews its farming as a service model at REAP 2017


Small Robot Company
Small Robot Company’s prototype robot ToM

Robots are to be made available in a ‘Farming as a Service’ model, it was announced at REAP 2017 by the Small Robot Company. The agri-tech start-up is to offer a subscription service, which will see the farm ‘digitised’ and with the feeding, seeding and weeding managed by robots.

The service links together a series of robots with a clever ‘operating system’. It starts by collecting accurate and up-to-date information about a crop, plant by plant. Eventually, each process – from knowing when to plant, to all aspects of crop care, to knowing when to harvest – will be automated.

Small Robot Company is an agri-tech start-up focused on harnessing the power and precision of robots to improve the way that food is produced. It is inspired by the work of Professor Simon Blackmore at the National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams University.

No-till at scale

Co-Founders Ben Scott-Robinson and Sam Watson-Jones explain that the small, lightweight robots are much kinder to the soil and provide ‘no-till’ at scale.

“Switching to robots is a technological leap forward with enormous environmental benefits. A smaller, lighter, more agile machine reduces the damage caused to the growing medium. Data-driven, per plant treatment removes the need for blanket spraying,” comments Scott-Robinson, an experienced entrepreneur.

Small Robot Company
Small Robot Company’s prototype robot Rachael

“Robots will be more accurate when applying chemicals and fertiliser, treating only the plants that need to be treated. It is the best of both worlds, having an increased yield as well as minimal chemical usage through greater precision.”

Co-founder Sam Watson-Jones, a fourth generation farmer in Shropshire, adds: “We will follow a “no-till” approach with our robots, meaning less soil damage, increasing worm populations and improving soil health without chemicals.

Professor Blackmore estimates that as much as 95% of the energy farmers spend on cultivation is to rectify soil damage that was caused by using tractors in the first place.

The company is currently working with farm consultancy Andersons to create a white paper looking at the costs and benefits of switching to robotic farming service. Interested farmers can get an initial assessment of what the benefits and implications could be for their farm.

“Yield and profit are a huge concern for all the farmers we’ve spoken to. By using small robots instead of tractors, we have the opportunity to make farms more profitable and increase yield and efficiency. The added bonus of our approach is that we can bring more of the field into production, by using our small machines to access awkward field headlands,” continues Watson-Jones.

Headlands, the patch of soil around the edge of every field, are traditionally areas which underperform due to greater compaction, as this is where tractors turn around.

Start-Up Showcase - Small Robot CompanyScott-Robinson comments: “The machinery manufacturers tackle the challenge of reducing margins by producing more powerful and expensive machinery which covers the ground more quickly. However, bigger tractors are not a good solution for farmers with smaller fields and they do not allow the level of accuracy and detail that technology now makes possible.”

Funding from farmers

Seed funding for the Small Robot Company came from farmers and the service has been designed following intensive discussions with this community.

Watson-Jones says: “We know how farms are operated, how farmers think, the levels of support that farm businesses need and the pricing levels that are realistic.

“Our business is first and foremost by farmers, for farmers. When we are ready for our next fundraising round we intend to open it solely to farmer customers. This is to help ensure that we always remain focused on the individuals and the businesses that are going to be using our services.”

The first crop the Small Robot Company is focusing on is wheat, with its first customers signed up to use the service from October 2018. Small Robot Company is also looking for access to wheat crops to record how they grow, and the soil they are in to help with development of its ‘Neural Network’. British farmers can join in the initiative by letting the company scan wheat crops with the monitoring robot in fields over the winter.

Watson-Jones concludes: “We feel that the time has come for us to become an active part of the agri-tech debate. We are looking to increase the awareness of Small Robot Company and Farming as a Service within the agriculture industry.

“I am a big fan of the work going on at Agri-Tech East and the aims of the REAP Conference match very closely with our beliefs and what we are trying to achieve.”

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