Working with robots to transform farming

Robots are revolutionising farming and we’re putting them to the test at Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.

Tom, Dick and Harry are a trio of robots that along with Wilma, the digital brains behind them, could not only revolutionise the way we farm but also help us improve the health of the soil and look after nature. 

The robots are being developed by the Small Robot Company in Bristol to monitor crop health, seek out and destroy weeds, and plant seeds – and they’re being tested at Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.

Tackling weeds

Weeds are more of a challenge at Wimpole because the farm there is organic and therefore cannot rely on chemicals to control weeds. But Tom – the robot being tested at Wimpole – is proving to be very helpful when it comes to managing weeds.

He is set an area to map and travels autonomously up and down the fields, taking photos of the crops and weeds in high resolution. The photos are stitched together and an algorithm distinguishes what’s wheat and what’s weed, creating a digital map of all the weeds in the field.

Robots could also help farms save money as they can be used in place of heavy-duty farming equipment, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and soil erosion caused by tractors. And in the future robots might be able to plant different seeds in the same field, attracting bees and increasing biodiversity.

Moving away from pure monoculture – just one variety of crop in a field – has many benefits.

‘Take peas and wheat for example – if you can grow both in one field, the peas fix nitrogen into the soil, which helps the wheat grow,’ explains Callum. 

‘The pea flowers attract bees, increasing biodiversity. With the weather becoming more extreme and unpredictable, it’s harder to know what will grow well, so having more than one crop improves farms’ resilience.’

Rob Macklin, the National Trust’s head of farming and soils, said: “It is much quoted that unsustainable agriculture could result in only 60 harvests left largely due to soil degradation, erosion, loss of organic matter and biological health. Robots such as ‘Tom’ can help – but as a profession we need to do much more, to regenerate soils to ensure sustainable production going forward.”