Robotics

Autonomous farming robot zaps weeds with "lightning strikes"

Autonomous farming robot zaps ...
Robin, Nemo and Susant from the Small Robot Company with their next-generation weed mapping robot, Tom
Robin, Nemo and Susant from the Small Robot Company with their next-generation weed mapping robot, Tom
View 2 Images
Tom is a weed-mapping robot, covering up 20 hectares (50 ac) a day using autonomous navigation and an onboard camera to tell plants from weeds at a sub-millimeter resolution
1/2
Tom is a weed-mapping robot, covering up 20 hectares (50 ac) a day using autonomous navigation and an onboard camera to tell plants from weeds at a sub-millimeter resolution
Robin, Nemo and Susant from the Small Robot Company with their next-generation weed mapping robot, Tom
2/2
Robin, Nemo and Susant from the Small Robot Company with their next-generation weed mapping robot, Tom

As anyone with a garden can attest, keeping on top of weed growth can be difficult, but the problem is far more onerous for farmers raising large-scale crops for harvest. A new robot to be trialed next year could help them keep on top of things, however, by hunting down and killing unwanted plants with zaps of electricity.

The new droid is the handiwork of British startup Small Robot Company, who last year introduced a trio of miniature robots called Tom, Dick and Harry. These were built to automate certain farming tasks, making things more cost-effective and sustainable in the process.

Tom is a weed-mapping robot, covering up to 20 hectares (50 ac) a day using autonomous navigation and an onboard camera to tell plants from weeds at a sub-millimeter resolution. Harry is fitted with a drill and is designed to sow seeds with high precision, recording what types are placed where to offer users a crop-wide map of plant population.

Tom is a weed-mapping robot, covering up 20 hectares (50 ac) a day using autonomous navigation and an onboard camera to tell plants from weeds at a sub-millimeter resolution
Tom is a weed-mapping robot, covering up 20 hectares (50 ac) a day using autonomous navigation and an onboard camera to tell plants from weeds at a sub-millimeter resolution

Small Robot Company has now shared some new details on Dick, perhaps the most ambitious robot of the lot. It leverages a commercially available weed-killing technology developed by fellow UK startup Rootwave, which uses electricity to boil weeds from the inside out, and from the root upwards.

The main benefit of these "lightning strikes" is that the approach avoids the use of chemicals entirely, better protecting biodiversity and the quality of the soil for future farmers. The idea is that Tom would first create a map of the crop and identify the weeds, and Dick would then be sent in to neutralize the threat, using its autonomous navigation systems and data gathered by Tom to sniff out the weeds.

“This is truly a world-first,” says Sam Watson-Jones, co-founder, Small Robot Company. “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. 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."

The weed-destroying robots are set to be trialed on 20 UK farms across 2020 in partnership with the National Trust Wimpole Estate and Waitrose Leckford Estate. The Small Robot Company hopes to offer a commercial service in 2021.

Source: Small Robot Company

7 comments
Bob Stuart
I'd like to see a system that remembers or marks its own plantings, so all else are weeds without sophisticated recognition. Local beacons can make precision easy. I've heard that when weeds are young, a single nick from a laser will wilt them. Robots should be able to analyse soil and do complex companion planting, crowding out weeds with a permaculture. They can harvest at the peak hour, and compare results with a worldwide database, saving the best seeds and improving the soil by mulching, etc. I hope that the next generations will be small enough to work from narrow paths in deep shade.
FB36
This seems like a much better solution than using any chemicals against weeds! (How about a handheld zapper for people to use in their yards/gardens?)
Maybe also similar solutions possible against agricultural insect/worm infestations (using electricity/laser/ultrasound)?



paul314
Killing from the root up sounds like a great idea, especially in contrast to cutting or pulling weeds, where the taproot just grows again.
Expanded Viewpoint
Last year I tried this with a bush that was growing from the neighbor's yard under and through my wooden fence line. I used a drywall screw to make a connection into the stalk of the bush and ran the hot leg of a power cord to it. I used my Variac to reduce the voltage from 120 down to about 90, and after several days the bush was seen to be dying as the leaves turned red, but I didn't leave it hooked up long enough and the bush recovered, so I just cut the damn thing down. I just looked at it again, and I don't see any new shoots coming off of it, but it might just be dormant now that winter is here. If I see any new growth, will take more action.
Signguy
Chemical companies will fight this...
ljaques
As soon as it is proven to work, I'm sure that some company (MonKaffKaffSatanKaff) will buy 'em out. But depending on the "lightning", I'm wondering how all those little anaerobic darlings are going to get along. I know my little microbes wouldn't like it at all. There goes your little mycorrhizal latticework!
Titus
Amazing if they can make it work. Apply a residual weedkiller and than this robot machine to pick off what comes up. Wonder how much variability there is between weeds for this treatment and how much energy it takes. If cost competes with chemicals there will be a large market for these robots.