At Lockerley estate a robot called Tom is making its way slowly but steadily through 650 hectares of arable farmland. Weighing just 150 kilograms, the autonomous robot travels on four wheels, splashes of orange on its 1.8 metre long metal frame. Fixed out in front, at the end of Tom’s long crane-like lever, a powerful double camera scans each individual wheat plant poking out of the Hampshire soil.
Each day the robot, designed by UK start-up Small Robot Company, can travel up to 20 hectares in this way, collecting around six terabytes of data on exactly which patches of wheat might be blighted by weeds – a problem that, if left unchecked, can see whole fields of crops destroyed. Once Tom is finished, it’s the turn of Dick. A spider-like bot armed with a five-pronged “death wand” Dick can electrocute every single weed detected with a small puff of smoke, and zero chemicals.
For Craig Livingstone, who has been managing the Lockerley estate for the past five years, trialling the use of Tom and Dick over the last 12 months has been a massive boon. Since his arrival, the farm had already reduced its use of pesticides by 41 per cent and fertiliser by 32 per cent, using a mix of crop rotation, agronomy (the study of soil) and a 1,000-strong herd of grazing sheep.
All of that has saved time and money, and helped protect the environment. “But where is the next 40 per cent reduction going to come from?” asks Livingstone. “For me, it’s with the aid of robots.” Their help can’t come soon enough for UK farming, he adds. “This is the second month of the biggest ten years British agriculture faces. If we’re not in a position to embrace and look at new technology now, then we’re going to fall behind.”
The UK’s roughly 150,000 farms currently face a perfect storm of pressures. Some are threats that have built up over many decades, like the damage wrought by climate change. Facing more severe weather, and a greater spread of pests and disease, UK farmers have now committed to an ambitious net zero carbon target by 2040. Others are more recent developments. With Brexit, for instance, UK farmers face the dual loss of both millions in EU subsidies, and thousands of seasonal workers. Although the exact size of this fluctuating and temporary workforce is hard to gauge, it was thought to be around 64,000 in 2016, 99 per cent of which came from the EU.
By 2018, two years after the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, desperate farmers were standing before a select committee of MPs, warning of an “unprecedented” and “worsening” labour shortage. At Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire, 90 per cent of its 1,100 seasonal workers had been recruited from Poland and Latvia prior to the 2016 referendum; by 2018, owner Chris Chinn said, Polish applicants had dwindled to just 50.From 2021 on, the government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) has trebled the number of people allowed into the UK for temporary work to 30,000 – but that still falls way short of what’s needed.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has made things even worse. Not only have the restrictions on travel spread struggling farmers even thinner, with “thousands of vacancies in fields, polytunnels, glasshouses and packhouses”, according to farming representative body the National Farmers’ Union, but there’s now a bigger dependence on locally sourced produce from UK supermarkets looking to avoid a repeat of the disruptions of 2020. That means increased demand with reduced manpower.
“In the past, in agriculture we would’ve just thrown labour at the problem,” says Mark Gray, manager for the UK and Ireland at Danish robotics manufacturer Universal Robots. “But we can’t do that now.” Robots now offer hope that it might be possible to plug the gap – while also making farming both more efficient and better for the environment.
Traditionally, the UK has been behind the curve when it comes to embracing automation: in 2018 it had just 85 robots per 100,000 workers, compared to more than 700 per 100,000 in world leader South Korea. But there are growing efforts to change that. Already worth £14bn and employing some half a million people, the UK agritech sector has seen far more government support of late, with the launch of a £160m Agricultural Technologies Strategy in 2013, four new Agri-Tech innovation centres and several rounds of funding for innovative projects, including £24m set aside in 2020 for robotics that could help farms boost sustainability. So far recipients have includeda robot assistant capable of picking and packing soft fruits, a vertical stacking system for crops from London-based InFarm, and even wearable devices for dairy cows to track milk production.
Xihelm, a UK start-up run by former Google staffer James Kent, was one of those to receive a government grant in 2018 for its robotic glasshouse harvester, beginning commercial trials on farms the same year. Now the fifth generation of the bot, Eagle, is up and running at sites like FlavourFresh Salads in Southport, where it arrived in June 2020. In a glasshouse filled with row upon row of tomatoes, the robot arm uses AI to locate clusters of the ripest fruits before carefully pinching the stem to pluck them off.
For FlavourFresh, which typically relies on around 80 seasonal workers to help harvest its thousands of tonnes of tomatoes and berries, the robot is a big help in tackling all the uncertainty around labour, says managing director Charmay Prout. “Typically we get flushes of crops where fruits are ready at once, and if we’ve not got enough people to pick, it can result in high wastage, and ultimately impact our profitability,” she explains. It isn’t only a shortage of labour that robotics can tackle either but also the increasing costs of hiring workers, she adds, with a 21 per cent increase in the National Living Wage since 2016. Plus, limiting staff in glasshouses can help limit the spread of pests and disease, as it avoids the need for workers to move from one area to the next during harvesting.
More and more UK farmers are understanding the benefits of investing in robotics, says Peter Keeling, founder of agricultural research and development company KMS Projects. “Three years ago I addressed a group of farmers who couldn’t see why we’d want to robotise the picking of crops. Since then, almost all the farmers [we speak to] are on board.” The company’s automated broccoli harvester, which is now awaiting final field trials before it’s ready to hit the market, has the potential to carry out the job of roughly six workers, he says. Plus, it’s more efficient. Powered by a tractor, its three robot arms are fitted with a precise cutting tool capable of harvesting a head of broccoli every three seconds – twice as fast as a manual picker.
But for all their potential benefits – and all the current pressures on UK farms – many in academia and the farming community itself still wager it’s unlikely we’ll see armies of bots managing UK crops anytime soon.
For one, though both Brexit and the pandemic create a shortage in labour, they also do a great job of distracting politicians from the type of investment or regulatory support needed to get robotic replacements off the ground. Currently, farming robots receive a tiny part of overall funding in the agritech market (about three per cent, according to agri-tech venture capitalist AgFunder) with the road from prototype to scalable tech often taking years. Getting the KMS automated harvester to its final stages, for instance, has taken 12 years and more than £250,000.
Speaking at a House of Lords hearing, shortly after the Brexit vote, Richard Susskind, an advisor to the Lord Chief Justice, warnedthat “at a time of greater technological progress than humanity has ever witnessed, when I would want our entire government’s focus to be on leading the way in exploiting these emerging technologies, most of our ministers are preoccupied with disengaging from Europe.”
Even once robots are available at scale, Brexit looks set to create added pressure on available cash flow at farms, with the potential loss of half of the basic payments they had received via the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). That makes it harder to invest in unproved and expensive new technology, with automated pickers that are already on the market setting farmers back up to £200k, and even small autonomous bots as much as £25,000.
“Many UK farmers are small businesses that lack the capital needed to invest in these kinds of technologies,” points out Fabian Wallace-Stephens, senior researcher at think tank RSA. There are efforts to mitigate the risks of this big upfront investment by offering “robotics as a service,” he adds, “which doesn’t require the same level of upfront investment but are sustained through transaction fees.”
At Small Robot Company, for example, the plan is to offer “robots as a service” by 2024, rather than asking the likes of Livingstone to shell out hundreds of thousands of pounds on their Tom, Dick and Harry (a third bot capable of planting individual seeds in precisely drilled holes). Keeling too anticipates that though “bigger farms will take on robotics because they’ll have to, because of the acreage on which they work,” smaller farms, which make up about two thirds of farms in Europe, will require a more affordable option if they’re to get involved.
Robotics isn’t a quick fix, agrees Livingstone. And much as he’d like to see “swarms of robots” helping to manage his crops, he accepts “this is a system change, it’s a mindset change. It’s going to require far more than ‘introduce a robot and your problems go away’.” It’ll require collaborating with robotics manufacturers in much the same way farmers have teamed up with pesticide manufacturers or agronomists in the past as a way to boost yields or control weeds without the need to cultivate plants by hand. But the change is necessary, he believes. “Brexit, COVID, they’re both a factor in thinking differently in this way. But I also think this is just evolution.”
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