Self driving, laser armed robots to farm fruit and veg for UK grocery chain Waitrose
UK super market chain Waitrose is to start farming and selling crops reared by robots. The firm behind the technology claims farming revenues will increase by up to 40 per cent and farming costs will reduce by up to 60 per cent with the deployment of these self-driving, laser-armed mini farm machines.
The John Lewis Partnership, parent of the upmarket Waitrose grocery brand, has signed a three-year trial with a UK agri-tech startup called the Small Robot Company. It will test three of the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) enabled ‘farmbots’ at a farm in Leckford, in Hampshire, where it grows produce for Waitrose stores.
The 4,000-acre Leckford Estate, near Stockbridge, grows mushrooms, rapeseed, apples, and other products. The 10-kilo robots – named Tom, Dick and Harry – will use AI mechanisms to map and monitor crops on the farm, and recommend actions to reduce chemicals and improve yields.
A prototype of a first robot – Tom – will start work initially in a one-hectare wheat field, gathering topographical data from fitted cameras, to “get the lay of the land”. It will move of its own accord, and create a plant-by-plant view of the field, said the John Lewis Partnership.
Data gathered by the first prototype will be used to develop an AI system – called Wilma – that will guide the three robots to farm autonomously. The Small Robot Company will develop machine learning algorithms for a number of scenarios, including to differentiate between weeds and terrain.
Test prototypes of a precision weeding robot (Dick) and a digital planting robot (Harry) will follow. Dick will use machine vision to differentiate between weeds and crops – and to kill weeds with lasers. Harry will punch-plant seeds in the ground at a uniform depth, creating a plant level map showing the exact location of each seed.
New iterations of each robot will be developed through the course of the trial. “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,” said John Lewis in a statement.
Andrew Hoad, partner and head of the Leckford Estate, said: “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.”
Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company, and a fourth generation Shropshire farmer himself, commented: “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 robots will 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.
The £11.5 billion John Lewis Partnership has its own Room Y innovation team at Leckford, researching how AI can be used in farming, and elsewhere in the business. It said farming costs are rising by eight per cent per year.
The company has over 400 stores, including Waitrose supermarkets and John Lewis department stores.