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  • Writer's pictureThomas Gent

Robotics and farming

By Thomas Gent.

In my opinion the holy grail of farming is to find a way both to use no till drilling methods

and achieve a conventional farm level of yield with no artificial inputs. One sunny

summer evening this was something me and my dad were discussing and

contemplating if it were even possible.

One idea is to use cover crops to fix nitrogen and then crimp them to be able to plant

the next cash crop, the problem with this of course as we all know you cant crimp black

grass and you cant rely on being able to drill a good cover crop straight after harvest as

the dry summer of last year taught us all. The other problem with all rotational cropping

is of course the minimal amount of time the roots are in the ground and therefore the

effect they can have in turn on the soil is limited.

The ideal we discussed would be to have a constant understorey of clover that would

act both as a nitrogen fixing cover crop when there was no cash crop growing and in

theory if you could get it to grow thick enough a weed suppressing layer. Of course the

tricky and costly thing is to get a clover established well. Once you have done that you

then need to plant your wheat crop into the growing clover crop and somehow control

the clover so that the wheat crop can flourish. So I chimed in with a random idea about

robot lawn mowers surely we could get one of them and just run it through the wheat

crop and it would mower the clover effectively strip cropping.

Roll on about 6 months later and we are delighted to be working closely with and

Kristof Hayes. They are a team looking to bring practical, simple and usable robotic

solutions on farm. As I write this I have just been notified by DHL that our robotic

platform coming in from California will arrive on Thursday, the first one to be delivered

to Europe. We are planning to fit several different implements to the robot platform and

test its capabilities.

Having been at Agritechnica last week I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed by the

lack of really good innovation in the robotics sector. Everyone seems to be either over

complicating it, making giant (expensive) tractor sized robots or stuck in the research

phase. There is a concern in my mind that there are large scale robotics being

developed that will bring huge revolutions to large agro holdings with hundreds of

thousands of hectares to farm. This will I am sure revolutionise how commodity food

crops are produced and bring great strides in cost reduction and quality increases.

However will be unusable here in the UK making our scale of farming even less

competitive globally.

From my admittedly limited experience and knowledge it does seem however that there

is an opportunity for UK far farmers to do what we do best, test robotic systems out in

the field, let them get dirty, and find ways to bodge them together to make them work. If

we can find simple and practical applications for robotics this will be very useful for

farming. Robotics need not be something only available to universities and large

corporate farms. I can already see a future where they are out on my farm performing a

huge range of tasks in a simple, uncomplicated way.


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