• The John Lewis Partnership starts a three-year trial with agri-tech start-up Small Robot Company to test autonomous farmbots at the Waitrose & Partners’ farm in Hampshire
  • Small Robot Company’s technology could boost yields, improve soil health and increase efficiency in British farming
  • The technology is predicted to lift farmer revenues by up to 40 per cent, and reduce costs by up to 60 per cent

The John Lewis Partnership has announced a three-year trial with the Small Robot Company to test its revolutionary farmbots at the company’s farm in Leckford, Hampshire. The Leckford Estate, which grows produce for Waitrose & Partners including mushrooms, rapeseed, apples and many other products, will see three small robots – Tom, Dick and Harry – learn and test their state-of-the-art farming technology on a one-hectare wheat field.

The field trial will start with a prototype Tom robot, which is fitted with cameras and will get the lay of the land by gathering topographical data. Weighing just ten kilos, the robot is able to move autonomously to obtain a pin-point accurate, plant-by-plant view of the wheat field, leading to higher efficiency.

Through this data collection, the Small Robot Company will develop its machine learning in a variety of scenarios, such as differentiating between weeds and terrain, while building new prototype machines in the process. The trial will also provide the John Lewis Partnership’s Room Y innovation team with valuable insight to support innovation at Leckford, and inform how robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be used further in other areas of the business.

With farming costs rising by almost 8 per cent year on year, this new technology could help relieve some of the pressure and costs within the agriculture sector, improving yields, reducing the use of chemicals and helping to apply big data in agricultural practices to drive efficiency. This type of innovation has the potential to increase revenues by up to 40 per cent and lowering costs by as much as 60 per cent.

Field robotics: how small robots will evolve to help British farming

The data gathered by the prototype Tom robot will be used to develop an AI system called Wilma, which will eventually guide the three robots to farm autonomously. The trial at the Leckord Estate and other farms will be used to create and test prototype versions of Dick, the precision weeding robot, and Harry, the digital planting robot. Dick will use machine vision to differentiate between weeds and crops, thereby enabling it to kill weeds with lasers. Harry will accurately punch-plant seeds individually in the ground at a uniform depth, creating a plant level map showing the exact location of each seed.

In addition to increased precision, efficiency and productivity, the small robots are expected to deliver considerable environmental benefits. As the robots are much lighter than traditional farming tractors, they reduce the damage caused to soil by current farming practices. The small robots will also be able to take care of every single plant on an individual basis, giving them the perfect level of nutrients and support, with no waste.

Andrew Hoad, Partner & Head of the Leckford Estate, says:

“We are very excited to trial Tom, Dick and Harry at the Leckford Estate. The Waitrose & Partners farm has a long history in producing a wide variety of high quality crops. We work hard to farm in harmony with the environment and our vision for sustainable farming is aligned to what the Small Robot Company is trying to achieve.

“This new technology could be revolutionary for British farming. It is not designed to replace human labour but instead boost productivity and increase accuracy, freeing up the agricultural workforce to focus on other important tasks. We want to be at the forefront of this, and ensure we leave our soils and environment in great shape for future generations.”

Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company and a fourth generation Shropshire farmer, says:

“We’re positively thrilled to have the John Lewis Partnership and Waitrose & Partners farm on board to help us develop our robots. Together, we will be working  to reimagine food production. We’re on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution, taking farming into the digital age: and with British ideas and British technology at the helm. Our Tom, Dick and Harry robots will completely transform what’s possible on the farm. We will be able to use gardening tactics such as companion planting, but for broadacre crops. Different crops could be planted alongside each other in the same field, and harvested at different times. It’s the ultimate sustainable farming model.”