Waitrose & Partners is trialling a new use of robotics in retail – putting small autonomous ‘farmbots’ to work in the fields of its farm as it looks to boost revenues. The technology is predicted to increase farmer revenues by up to 40% while reducing costs by up to 60%.
Over the next three years, the supermarket and parent company John Lewis Partnership will test three farmbots from the Small Robot Company, using machine-learning to improve the way the farm operates. Tom, Dick and Harry will be deployed in the fields of The Leckford Estate, a 4,000 acre farm bought by the company’s founder back in 1929. Waitrose & Partners is the only UK food retailer to run a farm, which supplies produce from mushrooms to apples and pears to Waitrose stores.
The retailer says the use of robots in farming has potential to help cut costs and free up human workers for other tasks. The 10kg Tom robot, fitted with cameras, will start on a one-hectare wheat field, where it will produce a plant-by-plant view. That feeds into a ‘Wilma’ AI system that will ultimately guide the robots to farm autonomously. The Dick weeding robot will use machine vision to differentiate between weeds and crops, using lasers to kill weeds, and digital planting robot Harry will punch-plant seeds, individually, at a uniform depth, creating a plant level map to show the exact location of each seed.
Since the robots are lighter than traditional farming tractors they are expected to reduce damage caused to soil, while caring for each plant individually. They are also expected to help reduce farming costs, currently rising by almost 8%, year-on-year, as they cut the use of chemicals, improve yields and help to bring big data to an agricultural context. The trial will also inform the John Lewis Partnership’s Room Y innovation team as it looks to use robotics and artificial intelligence in other areas of the business.
Andrew Hoad, partner and head of the Leckford Estate, said the trial was very exciting. “This new technology could be revolutionary for British farming,” he said. “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 the Small Robot Company, is a fourth-generation Shropshire farmer. He said: “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 compassion 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.”
farmers that uses robotics and AI to deliver this dream. Our technology builds on 15 years’ research by Professor Simon Blackmore, the world’s leading expert in precision farming at Harper Adams university. Our three small robots Tom Dick and Harry will seed, feed and weed arable crops autonomously, with minimal waste.