Supermarket meets robotic farmers as the Waitrose & Partners supermarket chain's parent company, the John Lewis Partnership, enters into an agreement with the Small Robot Company to begin a three-year trial to test out a trio of miniature farmbots on Lewis' Leckford Estate, which grows produce for Waitrose & Partners. The trio of robots, called Tom, Dick, and Harry, will operate on a one-hectare (2.5 acre) wheat field to test ways in which automation can increase agricultural efficiency.

Though it makes up only a fraction of the national economies of developed countries, agriculture is one sector that society definitely can't do without. To paraphrase an old cliche, food will get you through a time without smartphones better than a smartphone will get you through a time without food. However, the Small Robot Company says that farming costs are rising by around eight percent a year, and the increasing need to feed a growing population while protecting the environment places farmers under a lot of pressure.

Robots are one way to help agriculture by not only doing the obvious and replacing expensive human labor, but also in revolutionizing farming in ways not seen since the introduction of tractors and fertilizers. Not only can robots work in a wider range of conditions than humans, they can do so around the clock and provide an attention to detail that would be far too expensive to do by hand. In addition, small robots can work in the field without inflicting the kind of damage that conventional machinery does.

An example of this is how Tom, Dick, and Harry will work on the experimental field in Hampshire. For the trial, a 10-kg (22-lb) prototype Tom robot fitted with cameras will traverse the landscape and make a minute, plant-by-plant map of the topography – a level of granularity that's on a scale with a person scrubbing a floor with a toothbrush.

The Small Robot Company says that it will use this data and machine learning to develop a series of scenarios to help new robotic prototypes to tell the difference between weeds and terrain. It will also allow for a more precise application of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals to each plant that could raise revenues by 40 percent while cutting costs by 60 percent.

Part of this will be done through a new AI system called Wilma that will operate the three robots and help with farm management. Using this approach, the precision weeding robot, Dick, will use machine vision to kill weeds using lasers without harming crop plants next to them. Meanwhile, Harry, the digital planting robot, will plant seeds at a uniform depth while keeping a precise map of each one's location.

"This new technology could be revolutionary for British farming," says Andrew Hoad, Partner & Head of the Leckford Estate. "It is not designed to replace human labor but instead boost productivity and increase accuracy, freeing up the agricultural workforce to focus on other important tasks. We want to be at the forefront of this, and ensure we leave our soils and environment in great shape for future generations."

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