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Robots are coming to a field near you

In 2017, Kit Franklin and a small team at Harper Adams University became the first farmers in the world to cultivate a field from planting to harvest without a human setting foot on the land. They called it the Hands Free Hectare, as in the metric unit that’s 100 meters (328 feet) long and wide, or about 2.5 acres in area.

Today, it's argued by many that the 2060s England’s rolling fields will be farmed principally by a robotic land army.

Jake Gibson Shaw-Sutton, a robotics engineer who founded Robotricks at Plymouth University in 2018, is one of those working to develop robots to take on the bulk of agricultural labour.

His Robotricks Traction Unit (which can be programmed to harvest, plant and weed) is already in advanced trials with farmers in the south west. “Ultimately our machine is part of the solution,” he insists.

“For mankind to be able to survive and continue, it needs to use technology such as this to optimise the way we have been growing.”

Shaw-Sutton says that as well as filling the void of human labour, automated agriculture can also be far more productive.

A WWF study published earlier this year found an estimated 3.3m tonnes of food is wasted across UK farms annually.

By growing and harvesting crops more efficiently, England could free up some of the 70 per cent of its land currently used for agriculture to boost wildlife and biodiversity while at the same time maximising food production.

Shaw-Sutton also predicts more food production will move away from the countryside into cities. Vertical farms such as the 26-storey ‘sty-scrapers’ built in China to replace pig farms will become an increasing part of the urban skyline.

Earlier this month Ericsson announced it would invest “tens of millions of pounds” over the next decade in automative technology with a focus on 6G connectivity.

The programme will employ 20 dedicated researchers with additional support for PhD students who will focus on research areas including network resilience and security, artificial intelligence, cognitive networks and energy efficiency.

With 5G still in its relative infancy, 6G networks are not expected to be commercially deployed until 2030 at the earliest. Only around 50 per cent of the UK population currently has access to 5G where they live, with landmass coverage lower than 12 per cent and rural business are demanding that this change.

6G is expected to build on 5G’s features by broadening consumer and industry use-cases such as connected, smart agriculture, robotics, and intelligent autonomous systems.

Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, said: “Ericsson’s investment is a huge vote of confidence in the UK’s innovative telecoms sector.

“Their pioneering research unit will create new jobs, support students and bring together some of our country’s finest minds to shape the future of connectivity in the UK and across the globe.

“Our mission is to lead the world in developing next-generation network tech, and we will soon publish a strategy outlining how we harness 6G to deliver more for people and business.”

Katherine Ainley, Ericsson UK & Ireland CEO, said: “Ericsson has been connecting the UK for more than 120 years and this new investment underlines our ongoing commitment to ensure the country remains a global leader in the technologies and industries of the future.

“Our vision for a more connected, safer and sustainable world is one that is shared by the UK government, and we look forward to working together with network operators, industries and academia to develop international standards that will move us ever closer to achieving seamless global connectivity and truly ground-breaking innovation.”


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