An unmanned robotic tractor is weeding crop fields in Suffolk — in a UK first.
Home Farm Nacton, near Ipswich, took delivery of the Danish-made Robotti 150D machine as the industry faces increasing challenges in finding seasonal labour to carry out laborious chores such as weeding.
Brexit and the pandemic have led to a tightening of the farm labour market — causing a headache for agricultural businesses in the UK.
The farm can’t use chemicals to control weeds on its organic fields — but fewer and fewer of them are allowed even on conventional crops making hand weeding or mechanical weeding among the only viable options.
The machine is now fully operational on the 1940ha farm, near Ipswich, which produces organic and conventional crops including leeks, brassicas, onions, red beet, potatoes, fodder beet, sugar beet and cereals. By the end of the year, it’s expected that 50 such robots will be operating in fields across Europe.
Experts believe its arrival in Suffolk ushers in a new era in UK farming in the same way that modern-day combine harvesters did in the post-war period.
Farm director Andrew Williams said he heard about the Robotti from farming co-operative Fram Farmers’ machinery manager Gordon Cummings, who had been looking into robotics for the fresh produce sector for two years.
“The farm worker of the future is going to have to be a technician.”
He put the company in touch with Agrointelli — a farmer-owned agricultural machinery maker in Denmark — and by January, Andrew had secured approval from Home Farm’s board of directors to introduce the new technology on the farm. The new piece of 150 horsepower kit costs around £150k versus about £120k for a conventional manned machine, and is said to be highly fuel efficient.
“I am very, very pleased and excited about it,” said Mr Williams.
The machine — only in operation since mid-April — was already proving its worth, he said — although he admits it has been a learning curve.
On the first day after its arrival, the team at Home Farm Nacton tried it out on a potato field. What the farmers failed to realise was that while the field had been initially mapped out using GPS, it hadn’t when the field was de-stoned or when it was planted. That meant the mapping co-ordinates no longer reflected the precise plan on the ground and the weeder went awry as a result.
But when the Robotti was placed on a leek field with more precise GPS mapping it worked a treat. “We are going to have to put GPS equipment on the back of our de-stoners,” said Mr Williams. “This (machine) makes no allowances, which is its weakness but also its strength.”
He feels it may be useful for drilling onions next year — and possibly as a spot sprayer.
Out demonstrating its abilities on one of the farm’s leek fields, the robotic tractor fitted with a harrowing device worked its way steadily over the field clearing the area between the crop with great precision. At the end of each row it shimmied around ready to take on the next tranche of the crop field. After a series of turns it achieved the correct position and continued — but when someone stood in front of it, it automatically halted.
The machine has been nicknamed ‘Bob’ in honour of long-serving farm worker Bob Crowfoot who has been responsible for keeping the farm’s fields weed-free for many years. Far from feeling sidelined by his robotic counterpart, though, Mr Crowfoot and his fellow farm workers are said to have been enthusiastic about the new arrival. Mr Cummings admitted he had been “amazed” at the positive response from the workforce.
“They know it’s replacing the jobs nobody wants to do,” he explained. “The farm worker of the future is going to have to be a technician.”
Agrointelli sales manager Frederik Rom said the arrival of the machine — the 15th one sold — was a milestone. “It’s really cool and something we are very proud of.”
The company has sold machines in countries across Europe, including Germany and the Czech Republic, but the story of the Robotti started 20 years ago, he said, under chief executive and founder Ole Green.
Chief product officer Hans Christian said the machine was also capable of carrying out a range of other functions if fitted out – including seeding and planting. The response in the UK had been “very positive”, he added. “I really see a lot of potential and interest. I think the labour issue is quite big for you.”
The new machine was a “step change”, said Fram Farmers’ chief executive Andrew Knowles. It was half the weight of an ordinary tractor and used half the red diesel, he said.
Home Farm Nacton was seen as a pioneer in the industry, he added. “I suspect it will spark a lot of interest in the area and in the country in terms of vegetable growers,” he said, adding that these were “exciting times”.
“It’s a bit like when the first combine was brought into the field,” he said.