UK supermarkets using robots to farm its food
British supermarkets are to start selling food farmed in the UK by robots for the first time in a project led by Waitrose, the Telegraph has learned.
The supermarket will use autonomous farming robots to analyse, plant and protect crops from weeds at a farm near Stockbridge, Hampshire.
In a three-year trial, the robots – known as Tom, Dick and Harry – will start cultivating fields used to grow wheat for bread and flour sold in Waitrose stores.
The robots, developed by Shropshire-based start-up the Small Robot Company, uses artificial intelligence to scan thousands of pictures of a specific field. The images allow them to spot weeds and plant seeds in the best location.
Farmers on the 4,000-acre Leckford Estate hope that the new technology will cut costs and improve yields – something they claim needs to happen if subsidies and the supply of European workers are affected by Brexit.
Andrew Hoad, the head farmer on the Leckford Estate, said the project was “hugely exciting” and would help improve the economics of UK farming after the loss of EU agricultural subsidies.
“The months ahead are going to be challenging for everyone,” he said. “Great innovation sometimes comes out of complex challenges.”
Waitrose hopes to eventually extend the robots to assist in the production of rapeseed, used in its canola oil products.
One of the robots, known as Tom, is able to spot weeds by travelling across fields and taking thousands of pictures of the ground beneath it.
Artificial intelligence software uses GPS and pattern recognition software to tell the robots and farmers where exactly there are weeds and how many of them are in a field.
This means pesticides can be accurately placed directly on the individual weeds by the farmer, rather than just by spraying a whole acre of land. Previously, farmers would have had to pay a specialist agronomist to survey and analyse the land, work the robots can now do.
Additionally, another larger robot called Dick, which is about the size of a small car, will then be told where the weeds are and autonomously remove the plants from the field.
Harry, another large robot, will drill and plant seeds in the soil, as well as replace seeds that have not germinated.
The robots will first be used to conduct farming in the supermarket’s wheat fields, and if the trial goes well, the robots will then harvest rapeseed.
The robot company’s co-founder Sam Watson-Jones, who is a fourth generation farmer, believes that the pressure that farmers face from Brexit has caused them to innovate, and adopt new ideas, such as robot farming.
Mr Watson-Jones said: “We’re on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution, taking farming into the digital age, with British ideas and British technology at the helm.”
The robots as expected to start work in February when the wheat fields will start to be prepared for the first harvest of 2019.
The Leckford Estate was started in 1929 by John Spedan Lewis, the founder of John Lewis Partnership that presently owns both retailers Waitrose and John Lewis.