Weed-killing robots could provide eco-friendly alternative to pesticides

A National Trust estate is trialling weed-killing robots in the hope they could provide a more eco-friendly alternative to pesticides and cut carbon emissions from tractors.

Photo source: Phil Mynott

Farmers at The Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire, are testing whether a robot called ‘Tom’ can accurately map the location of weeds in a bid to cut chemical use and improve environmental performance.

It will allow farmers to apply herbicides solely to areas where there are weeds rather than spraying large areas.

Two further robots are in development, one to zap weeds with an electrical charge and the other for precision planting.

Callum Weir, farm manager, said: “This robot can map every centimetre of the field and give me recommendations for different parts of the field.

“Instead of me looking at applications from a field scale, I will go to a metre-squared scale.

“That means I can be much more precise in the applications that I apply, the operations that I do, saving fuel, saving fertiliser and increasing biodiversity.”

The 1,500 acre (600 hectare) organic farm at Wimpole grows wheat, rye, oats and barley.

The initial robot, Tom, built by the Small Robot Company, is fitted with two downward-facing cameras to monitor what is in the field, has sensors to detect obstacles as it trundles around and transmits data to be stitched together into a map by software. It is powered by electricity, reducing emissions, and has a four-hour battery life.

It can map 50 acres (20 hectares) per day, according to the National Trust. And the 23 stone 8lbs (150kg) ) prototype compacts the soil far less than a traditional seven-tonne tractor does.

Yesterday the National Trust demonstrated the technology to some of its tenant farmers, of which there are 1,700.

“We are really keen at this quite important time of biodiversity decline, climate change mitigation and political uncertainty around farming that we support our tenants to make sure they have sustainable livelihoods,” Mr Weir said.

Rob Macklin, the National Trust's head of farming and soils, said: “Technology needs to play a big part in solving many of the issues we currently face in farming - particularly improving soil health and carbon sequestration, reducing our reliance on fossil fuel power and fertilisers and avoiding the adverse impacts of synthetic chemicals on the environment.

“We want to encourage nature-friendly farming practices, and we have to lead by example and embrace innovations.”

It is hoped Tom and Dick will be commercially available in 2021.

Source: The Telegraph