Sectors across the board are embracing Industry 4.0 technologies, ranging 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 noticed that the farming business had been somewhat abandoned.
“When I went to a field and decided it was a good time to apply some fertilizer… the same decision-making process would be recognized by my great-grandfather who farmed the same land in the 1940s: it’s very much instinct and experience.”
This was not the only concern. His family’s farm had been producing the same yields for the past 30 years, while inflation was taking an increasingly larger part of the profits. Currently in the UK, inflation is running at nearly 30% annually.
The farm’s impact on the environment was another concern, the entrepreneur explained at Forward Fooding’s agri-food technology event in London. “It quickly struck me that the work, as it exists, had some major problems. It didn’t have much of a future unless something significant changed.”
For Watson-Jones, it all boils down to one thing: “The sector wasn’t using technology to make better decisions.” Together with co-founder Ben Scott-Robinson, Watson-Jones founded The Small Robot Company – a startup that corrects decision-making with a concept they coined “for every plant grown”.
What is “cultivation per plant”?
“Cultivation per plant is the ability to eventually go into any field, collect data on each plant individually, so you can then treat each plant individually,” explained Watson-Jones, who serves as the company’s president. The way the startup does this, as the name suggests, is with small floor bots.
The so-called per-plant cultivation first centers around data collection, which The Small Robot Company calls “per-plant intelligence.” A ground robot that moves around 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 artificial intelligence, the software determines if weeds are present in the field (in addition to determining their exact geolocation). It can also check the health status of the crop, and report any potential disease or pest concerns. “All of these things can be detected from a single image,” Watson Jones explained.
From “intelligence per plant”, the system moves to “action per plant”. Small Robot creates a treatment map for the sprayers, enabling them to apply chemicals “more precisely.” The farmer may decide not to use chemicals altogether, in which case a lightweight robot can “sow” the weeds instead. “These are the projects we are doing at the moment.”
serving per hectare to farmers
Small Robot has already partnered with farmers to use chemicals in the fields more efficiently. The company sells its services on a per hectare basis.
Historically, if a farmer caught a few weeds, they would probably spray herbicides all over the field, Watson-Jones suggested. By geo-locating every weed in the field and spraying “per plant,” they may end up spraying no more than 3% of the field—saving 97% of the herbicide.
“This could have a transformative effect on the cost of producing these crops, and of course have a massive environmental impact. Think of the massive volume of chemicals we waste that never come into contact with weeds.
“The same applies when we use fertilizers or fungicides. Farmers overuse them [chemicals] Because they didn’t have a better way to collect the data. This is what we tried to solve using a structured and detailed dataset.”
Farmers have been working the land for a long time – about 12,000 years to be exact. Are they willing to use the next generation of technology, or do they remain committed to “gut instinct and expertise”?
Watson-Jones believes that perceptions change. over the past few years [attitudes] It has changed… When we started this in 2017, we spent time convincing farmers of this [transition] it was necessary. I don’t have those conversations anymore.”
The co-founder puts this into raising awareness about the environmental impact of conventional farming and increasing input costs. “There is broad acceptance that this technology is essential to providing more stable business models.”
Agrochemical partnerships and next steps
However, farmers aren’t The Small Robot Company’s only customers. The startup is also looking to partner with agrochemical companies. The leaders in this segment are Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science, BASF and Corteva.
Watson-Jones explained that agrochemical companies have the potential to become “very large partners” for The Small Robot Company. why? The reason is at least twofold: these companies want to “get closer” to the farmer’s customer; They are looking to be paid for results, not for the volume of a chemical.
By doing so, they may be able to extend the life of their existing portfolios while still increasing revenue in the face of tightening regulations.
At the same time, The Small Robot Company anticipates that it will be able to help these companies boost their research and development efforts, we’re told.
Small Robot is currently partnered with around 20 farms in the UK but expects that number to expand “quite dramatically” next year. While it currently sells its product as a service, this model may also change in the new year for farmers who prefer owning the machines themselves.
In terms of technological developments, Watson-Jones expects that the next steps will see its systems not only detect weeds in the field, but be able to identify specific types of weeds. Having this information will give growers the opportunity to leave some weeds in if they wish, rather than eradicating them all. “Not all of them cause a particular problem.”
Follow the co-founder: “The same approach will support more precise applications of fungicides and fertilizers, as we begin to develop these models.”
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