With increasing pressure on farmers to produce food sustainably whilst also improving profitability and yields, we spoke to two businesses embracing technology.
John Chinn, of Cobrey Farms, introduced asparagus as a new crop on his farm in the Wye Valley, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, in 2003.
It struck John how little research had been done on the crop and how little was understood about the crop’s physiology and pathology. Indeed, when John started planting the crop, the main varieties of Gijnlim and Backlim had been around since the 1970s.
Since then, he has been involved in several research projects looking at various aspects of growing, handling and storing the crop. We spoke with John to find out more.
The use of robots to pick asparagus
John was introduced to Florian Richter and Chris Chavasse of Muddy Machines Ltd via Innovate UK, the UK’s national innovation agency which provides funding and support for businesses to develop new products and services across all sectors and technologies.
Florian and Chris were looking to get into a project using their technical knowledge of robotics and automation and John presented the idea of building a robot to harvest asparagus. Working at speed, they produced their first prototype and successfully tested it, harvesting green asparagus under controlled conditions, in October 2020.
Last season they named their robot Sprout (pictured) and continued the development, so that by June it was able to drive itself up and down the asparagus rows autonomously, harvesting asparagus spears and putting them into trays – albeit very slowly at one spear every 20 seconds (a good picker harvests one every two seconds).
Continuing the development this year, the aim is to increase Sprout’s pick speed to less than a second per spear, and to also develop the technology so that a swarm of, say, 12 or 15 Sprouts can operate together in one field, communicating with each other autonomously to ensure that the field is harvested in the most efficient way – and all under the watchful eye of just one person instead of requiring a team of 40 pickers.
Why is this important?
In the last few years, concerns have been growing over labour, both in terms of cost and availability. With around 1,350 people needed each picking season at Cobrey Farms, labour is one of the biggest costs to John’s business, with a direct impact on the bottom line. “Finding ways to save costs and become more efficient is key for farming businesses to survive in these increasingly challenging times”, says John. “Availability is even more concerning because without people to harvest the crop, Cobrey does not have an asparagus business.”
Using robots to harvest asparagus would dramatically reduce the number of workers needed in the field and help to ensure that the packhouse can be adequately manned.
The electric robots can run for around 16 hours per day before they need recharging, therefore hugely increasing the picking window. John is also looking at ways to provide electricity by harnessing renewable energy on
John highlights that, generally, farm machinery is getting bigger and heavier, which is bad for soil compaction. The asparagus robot is relatively small and light, at less than half the size of the smallest car, and with several robots working in one field, each using GPS navigation and communicating with each other to ensure that they
do not overlap in areas, soil compaction will be reduced.
What challenges have arisen?
As with all technology, there are concerns over the susceptibility of the robots to cyber-attack and so Warwick University is working to develop ways to counter such threats.
What plans are there for the future?
The same robot is also being developed to harvest tenderstem broccoli and courgettes.
These crops come in succession, so the same robot could be used on a farm to harvest asparagus first, with a change to the harvest module before moving onto other crops.
John explains that green asparagus is the most straight forward crop to harvest via robot.
“The robot only needs to sense the position, length and diameter of the spear. The harvesting arm can rotate so that when it cuts it isn’t cutting into other emerging spears. For other crops like tenderstem broccoli, the robot has to move the plant’s leaves to reveal the broccoli head, making it more difficult for the robot to sense and detect these variables correctly – this technology is still in development.”
The Small Robot Company
The Small Robot Company (SRC) was founded after Sam Watson-Jones looked at the operation of his family’s farming business and discovered that yields and profitability presented some fundamental issues to the future operation of the farm. We spoke with Sarra Mander, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, about how the SRC is playing an exciting part in the agri-tech revolution.
What is SRC all about?
“It’s all about reimagining farming to transform food production. Things have been done the same way for generations. We’re designing and building robots to aid sustainable and, importantly, profitable farming.
“Our robots, Tom, Dick and Harry, plant, monitor and treat arable crops autonomously, working on the basis of per-plant mapping and monitoring of fields, in addition to delivering weed control by non-chemical zapping and the application of herbicides”, says Sarra.
Why is this important and why now?
85% of farms aren’t profitable without subsidies – and with the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme, that’s going to become a huge issue. The sort of change being worked on by the SRC – integrating robots and artificial intelligence into a farmer’s toolkit – has been talked about for a long time. Only now is it technically and commercially possible.
Up to 90% of chemicals are wasted when applied by pull-type sprayers or equivalent (eg on the back of a tractor, the standard method used by most commercial farmers). So not only is the SRC looking at mapping and monitoring to save costs by per-plant application, but also there’s a huge potential environmental benefit too. This also corresponds with the current shift towards regenerative agriculture. Improving soil health by reducing compaction and cutting fertiliser and chemicals all sit alongside the technology being developed by the SRC.
What challenges has the SRC faced on its journey so far?
The main challenges have been funding and product development. On the funding side, £8.4 million has been raised through crowdfunding in the last four years. The business has also benefitted from government support latterly, in terms of research and development grants to push forward specific projects, having received £2.1 million from Innovate UK.
“You can’t take a product to market without it being robust and effective in a highly challenging environment. Getting the robots and software field-ready so that they can deal with different terrains, the weather, weeds and all manner of other factors, has taken time to get right following development of the prototypes and module architecture” says Sarra.
And what’s next? What does the future hold for the SRC?
The SRC is launching commercial services to the wider market. The average adoption journey for the robots is three to five years. The SRC and farmers want to see what works on a smaller scale before adopting systems and processes across a bigger area.
The SRC is looking to roll out the robots to 30 farms in autumn 2022, increasing to around 100 in 2023.
To start with, there will be a focus on integrating and optimising farmers’ existing equipment. Herbicide spot spraying will likely be the quickest thing to be brought to market, whereby only the areas of the fields which have weeds are sprayed, cutting herbicide use by around 70%.
There are a lot of interesting and exciting areas that the SRC are looking at developing further. One is SlugBot, which is a product being worked on alongside other businesses and experts, to tackle slugs using precision robotics. Sarra concludes, “It’s amazing to see how much SRC has grown in the past few years and we’re really excited to continue to be part of the agricultural technology revolution.”
You can learn more about the SRC at www.smallrobotcompany.com, or by following them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.