It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Developers are deploying killer robots that blast their victims with 8,000 volts. There is a crackle, a puff of smoke, and then the target is dead. In this case, this invention is being heralded for promoting sustainable agriculture by reducing pesticide use and promoting soil health.
The Small Robot Company (SRC) is an agri-tech startup that brings artificial intelligence to the farming industry. Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO of SRC, believes farming will radically change in the next two decades and become unrecognizable. His vision embodies weed control without the use of chemicals with agility and precision.
SRC is developing a team of robots for deployment on farms. “Tom” (seen above) fulfills a weed-mapping role and can monitor 50 acres of crops daily. Complete with LED lights, Tom and his family of killer robots can even work at night while farmers sleep. “Wilma” is the brains of the operation and processes the data from Tom. She examines the health of each plant and then gives orders to “Dick.” He then kills weeds by zapping them instead of relying on herbicides. SRC just introduced Tom to the United Kingdom market, and Dick will begin field trials in October.
Both Tom and Dick use an autonomous electronic platform powered by a Tesla battery. Dick uses a weed zapping technology by RootWave, which was named one of the most disruptive companies in the U.K. in 2019. It has received grant funding from the U.K. government to create next-generation products. RootWave has also released the RootWave pro, a professional hand weeder and a tractor-pulled weeder product for fruit crops.
RootWave technology zaps weeds by generating heat directly at them and boils the plant from the inside. It leaves weeds in place, where they naturally decompose. This no-till approach helps build soils, prevent erosion and capture carbon. The same technology can also help eliminate tenacious invasive plants that can overtake native plants.
“The way farming needs to be done is changing,” said Scott-Robinson in an interview with the Guardian. “It isn’t just about producing large quantities of food; it’s also about caring for what happens in the field.” Artificial intelligence can gather information about soil health and the prevalence of pollinators, enabling a fundamentally different approach to farming.
Now, SRC is exploring the concept of weed recognition because not all weeds are harmful to crops. Some are essential fodder for pollinators, while others may help with providing nitrogen. SRC is also researching how to analyze soil health and biodiversity by using a microphone to gather data on bird songs and other pollinators.
Sadly, studies show that 95 percent of herbicides do not reach their targeted pests, and they often end up in waterways. Herbicide-resistant weeds are a growing concern to many farmers, yet they can be challenging to identify. Prevention strategies include reducing pesticide use, rotating crops and mechanical weed control practices. Numerous pesticides are suspected or known carcinogens. Sadly, many farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides each year in developing countries; depending on the source cited, as many as 20,000 deaths annually are attributed to these chemicals. Hence there’s an opening for these killer robots.
“The dream double bottom line for farming is increasing yields sustainably. For at least the last two decades, farmers have been trying to increase yields while reducing damage to the environment,” said Sam Watson Jones, President and co-founder of Small Robot Company, in a press release. “But the weed burden necessitates treatment - and unfortunately at the moment, we have a farming system which dictates a blanket approach.”
Robots specifically designed for the farming industry already exist but overall, they are new to the market. EcoRobotics uses robotics to dramatically reduce the use of pesticides with a robot that uses artificial vision. Vitibot has an electric vineyard robot that handles mechanical weeding, spraying and stripping. Naïo Technologies has produced three models the weed and hoe farmland in various applications, including vineyards and large-scale vegetable farms.
“How quickly farmers take up the use of robots is yet to be answered,” said Andrew Diprose, the CEO of RootWave, in an interview with the Guardian. “We have a solution that allows you to weed your fields without chemicals, carbon emissions, tilling the soil, and at some point, without an operator. It really is the future, and it’ll take us a bit of time to get there. But we will get there.”
Image credit: Small Robot Company
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.