Small Robot Company launches commercial weed-mapping robot

CHAP member Small Robot Company (SRC) has announced it will begin trials for its non-chemical precision robotic weeding system for cereal crops early next year.

SRC, a British agri-tech start-up, has designed weeding robot, Dick, to accurately zap individual weeds, using commercially-proven RootWave weed zapping technology. This is a major technological milestone which will enable automated, precision, per-plant weeding both at scale and autonomously, for the first time, providing a post-glyphosate future for arable farmers.

This world-leading innovation is funded by the government’s Innovate UK grant programme, with more than £1 million funding committed to date. Working together in partnership with British start-up RootWave, Small Robot Company has successfully completed development of its ‘Dick’ non-chemical weeding robot prototype to in-lab proof of concept stage, Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4.0. An initial prototype will go into field trials in 2020, with the commercial weed zapping service anticipated to be available from autumn 2021.

In addition to Dick, SRC has also launched its next generation monitoring robot, Tom (pictured with SRC’s tech team, Robin, Nemo and Susant). The company’s first robust commercial robot, Tom, is delivering SRC’s first commercial service for weed mapping.

Tom is 1.8m long with a 4m boom, weighs approximately 150kg and will cover 20 hectares per day autonomously, collecting about six terabytes of data. He can distinguish plant details at submillimetre resolution, is robust and weather-proof and can be used all year round.

“This is truly a world-first. For the first time, we can see each plant in the field, and every single weed; instead of spraying the whole field we can simply zap the individual weeds,” says Sam Watson-Jones, co-founder, Small Robot Company. “Farmers are integral to the environmental solution. It’s crucial that we’re working on farm to develop our technology, to ensure it delivers real benefits in field. Together, we’re creating the ultimate sustainable farming model.”

Rootwave uses electricity to kill weeds, effectively boiling them from the root upwards. The plant then decomposes naturally, returning its nutrients to the soil. Because RootWave treats deep into the roots, it can be used to treat any weed, including tough invasive species such as Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed.

Andrew Diprose, CEO, RootWave adds, “Our technology uses electricity to zap weeds with zero chemicals. Increased regulation, herbicide resistance, and consumer concerns are all intensifying the urgency to find an environmental solution. Partnering with Small Robot Company means we can automate our weed zapping to operate at farm-scale.”

Initial customers include the National Trust Wimpole Estate and Waitrose Leckford Estate farms, who are both already trialling SRC’s first commercial weed mapping service, which uses SRC’s ‘Tom’ monitoring robot to first locate the weeds. Both farms have been key partners in SRC’s work to develop its sustainable farming technology. Trials will take place on 20 UK farms through 2020.

Callum Weir, farm manager of the 1,500 acre organic farm on the Wimpole Estate, says: “The key advantage of this groundbreaking technology is that it will enable us to be much more precise and targeted in controlling weeds, therefore helping us to increase crop yields and biodiversity. It is also lightweight, helping reduce compaction of soils – a consequence of using traditional tractors – which will help improve soil health.”

Small Robot Company has won more than £1million in Innovate UK grants to date, including an £800,000 grant for its ‘Wilma’ artificial intelligence weed recognition and ‘Tom’ weed mapping technology. Calum Murray, Innovate UK’s Head of Agriculture & Food, said: “It’s fantastic to see how Innovate UK’s funding has brought together British start up RootWave and Small Robot Company to develop game changing technologies that will revolutionize the agriculture sector. This innovative technology will allow farmers for the first time ever to use non-chemical precision robotic weeding for cereal, while saving energy and reducing costs. At Innovate UK, we are proud to be supporting the transformation of the UK’s food production systems, improving productivity and sustainability, and helping the industry move towards achieving net zero emissions by 2040.”

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