Tom is an ag-tech ‘watchdog’, tasked with monitoring plants in fields, tracking their development and recommending the fertilizers needed to maximize crops. Tom lives at the farm on which he’s deployed, retreating to his kennel periodically to recharge his batteries (in a very literal sense) and upload the data he’s collected.
When more specialized work is needed, Tom can call out Dick and Harry. Dick is a pro at spraying chemicals and fertilizers exactly where they’re needed, while Harry’s job is planting.
All three robots are smaller, lighter and work with more precision than typical farm machinery, causing less damage to soil in the process, according to Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO of Small Robot Company (SRC), the company developing the trio. The plan, he explains, is use Tom, Dick and Harry to offer arable farmers a new approach - Farming-as-a-Service:
The costs of farming have gone up massively - maybe 85% or so over the last 20 to 25 years. But crop yields and the money coming out of farms have stayed largely the same. We know farming is expensive. Farmers can’t afford to take risks, so we developed farming-as-a-service as a way to tackle their concerns and help them adopt robotics. After all, many farmers have been burnt by new technologies in the past - they’ve made investments in kit that failed to boost yields, that wasn’t reliable or where, in the case of drones, legislation changed.
With Farming-as-a-Service, instead of buying a robot, you simply pay for the delivery of a healthy crop for X amount per hectare. And by moving farmers away from the traditional capex model of paying upfront for costly machinery and offering instead an opex-based service, we take away the risks for them.
Wilma: the brains of the outfit
Tom, Dick and Harry may be more nimble and accurate than the traditional farmyard tractor, but the real brains in the outfit is provided by Wilma, the operating system built in-house at SRC that underpins the company’s farming-as-a-service offering.
Wilma is based on the Ubuntu operating system, provided by London-based Canonical. Ubuntu was chosen largely on its proven ability to integrate well with Robotic Operating System (ROS), an open source robotics middleware that provides basic functions such as communications, geopositioning and navigation for Tom, Dick and Harry.
Running on top of this stack is software from Cambridge, UK-based artificial intelligence (AI) specialist Cosmonio, which provides the machine learning capabilities that help Wilma make her recommendations on which crops need extra help, and which ones are doing just fine.
During planting, Harry records where he has planted every seed and uploads that information to Wilma to create a per-plant crop map. Tom uses that information to inspect and monitor crops, sending it back to Wilma, where it is combined with weather data, crop and field history and information from third-party pathogen monitoring services, enabling Wilma to deliver instructions to Dick about where crop care is required. While Tom lives on farms for routine maintenance, Dick and Harry are despatched from SRC’s Small Robot Central headquarters to deliver these occasional tasks.
Hopes for a good harvest
It’s very early days for SRC, which was officially launched in November 2017. So far, Tom, Dick and Harry are still under development - although a Tom prototype (‘Rachel’) is already at work on farms participating in SRC’s trials of the system.
Work continues, too, on Wilma, helped by an £800,000 grant from Innovate UK in March 2018. There’s training to do on the algorithms based on trial data and some interface design work underway. There’ll need to be more development of the architecture in terms of how the software integrates with robots, Tom’s kennel and the cloud, as well as further analysis of what kind of service will best appeal to farmers, says Scott-Robinson.
But there are already revenues coming in, he adds, even if Farming-as-a-Service is some years off from being a commercial reality.
Off the back of the initial interviews we did ahead of launch and speaking to others farmers since then, we've secured 20 farmers who have signed up to be part of our 'Farmer Advisory Group'. We're developing the service very much in partnership with them, both in terms of trialling in their fields, getting them involved in user testing, and getting their understanding of how different soil types work with different crops. They've all pre-paid to be part of that group, so we are working with them right now.”
In terms of having a commercial service that we can take out to other customers, we're aiming to having a limited service in place for September 2020 and a full service in place for 2021.