Illustration by Adam Q

Farming life: Will Robot Tom replace me?

A new arrival on my farm will mark a novel development in the technology of agriculture
June 16, 2022

In May this year, I signed an exciting deal with the Small Robot Company, and we hope to invite “Robot Tom” to our farm this autumn. 

I walk our fields for perhaps an hour a day at the most; Robot Tom will patrol them up to 24 hours a day. I can identify a handful of common weeds and plant diseases; my automaton assistant has access to the full complement of human learning and can process data in milliseconds.

I can drive our tractors—and use machinery that sprays fertiliser or plant medicines—in an area as small as three metres wide; my robotic companion betters me in this again. He can communicate with and bring in another robot (called “Dick,” who will be ready for rollout in two years) to select individual weeds and “zap” them with an electric current, killing them down to the root without harming other plants or insects in the area.

This may sound a bit sci-fi. What if the robot completely replaces me and takes over the farm? But I think that the move towards robotics can help combine two trends: the growing use of technology in agriculture with a new commitment to nature-friendly farming.

The deployment of robots represents the latest in decades of improvements in our farming knowledge and machinery since the turn of the century. “Precision farming” was the catchphrase of choice in the early 2010s, with satellite-guided tractors moving along paths with accuracy to the centimetre. These tractors could sow seed and apply fertiliser or pesticides in specific areas of the field, reducing input costs, increasing efficiency and maximising yield. This was all very good, if a little sterile; a cerebral system of farming using physics and chemistry and computing.

What Robot Tom and Dick will offer is the science of “per plant farming.”

In the past few years, we’ve reconnected with the heart of farming, becoming closet biologists and obsessing about improving our degraded soils. We have seen a surge in phrases such as “conservation agriculture” in the farming press—which describes a system of reducing soil disturbance, raising diverse crops and planting in-between harvests to protect soils. More recently there has been talk of “regenerative agriculture,” which builds on these principles and also uses livestock grazing and manures further to improve soil health.

What Robot Tom and Dick will offer is the science of “per plant farming,” and it won’t just make food production more efficient; it will be great for the environment as well. One of my favourite stories is about a group of farmers who were consulted during  the development of the robots and told that they could eradicate all weeds from their fields. The farmers replied, “Do you have to kill all the weeds?” The answer is no. In fact, this technology could allow non-competing plants to continue to grow alongside our crops, benefitting the soil and perhaps even further improving yields, while eliminating only the most pernicious weeds.

This is fantastic for the environment, largely removing the need for herbicides and fungicides (by 95 per cent in the latter case). This space-age technology combines the high-yielding ambition of modern agriculture with the delicate touch of traditional and organic farming. I’m incredibly excited to be a part of this. Britain led the world in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, and we can now claim to be taking a lead in food production and environmental protection in the early 21st. A farming good news story, finally.