The Tractors of Tomorrow: Meet Tom, Dick and Wilma

Farming is one of those industries where it’s hard to imagine robots taking over. The idea of smooth-running, soulless metallic things surveying a muddy field feels pretty unlikely. Farming is the territory of a bygone – at times romantic - land, where red-faced farmers in wellington boots and Barbour jackets herd cattle and sheep as the sun sets before settling down for a cozy, hearty stew….isn’t it?

But robotic tractors are (literally) sowing the seeds of tomorrow.

Enter Dick and Tom. They are some of the first tractor robots and are trans-farming (!) the agricultural sector for the better. Created by the Small Robot Company, these ‘farmbots’ are fueled by artificial intelligence to plant, feed and weed crops without the need of any humans. They are light, agile and versatile.

‘Curious’ robot Tom monitors and maps the crops, and ‘ruthless’ Dick is the world’s first robotic non-chemical precision weeder (what an achievement). Wilma, the resident female bot, has a slightly different function: as the AI Brain of the family (and also ‘the boss’- say hello to girl power!), she collects and stores data from the other bots (aka Tom and Dick) which then allows humans to make smart decisions, such as which bits of land to use and which crops to plant when and where.

According to the Small Robot Company, these customized decisions are an important way to reduce the use of chemicals, partly by identifying weeds to kill without just spraying any old crop with poison. “If you treat the whole field the same, overuse of chemicals is inevitable”.

These farmbots use 90% less energy, Co2 and fertilizer, and using them allows for a 95% reduction in the use of pesticides- all the byproducts of farming which poison the environment. As a result, pesticides are used only where they are really needed. What’s more, farming equipment can be really expensive, so using bots is cost-effective too.

The company is envisioning a smart new model which will become a commonplace standard of agricultural production, if it will have its way. Change needs to be imminent as farming has a huge role to play in feeding the hungry world and in reducing water use, improving crop yields and creating healthy food, free of the toxins that create health issues for both humans and animals.

The world will need to produce 50% more food by 2050: how can we feed a growing population addicted to certain kinds of foods (especially meat and dairy) but also look after our dear old friend the planet? Until now, it has seemed like a lose-lose situation; an impossible equation.

Farmbots seem to be one answer, at least. There are others, such as city micro-farming which we’ve explored in other blogs, but robotic farming doesn’t just create new ways of farming and new spaces in which to farm, it also revolutionizes our current agricultural system- a $5 trillion industry that won’t be easily knocked down.

Let’s not forget the inevitable risks, though. Artificial intelligence is no eco-warrior: in fact, it could actually contribute to global warming because of the vast amount of data that it uses (apparently training a single AI releases five times the emissions that a car would throughout its entire life).

As ever, there’s never a simple solution to a complex problem. But all avenues are worth exploring and new technologies are becoming available every day.

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