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National Trust Employs Autonomous Robot to Map Farmland

Ross Kelly

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National Trust

An 18th-century farm in Cambridgeshire has been given a modern tech boost following the launch of a robotics trial.

Wimpole Farm, which is owned by the National Trust, is trialling a robot that takes photos of plants to create digital weed maps. The pilot scheme is part of an initiative to improve the environmental performance of modern farming techniques.

‘Tom’ the robot was designed by the Small Robot Company, a UK-based agritech startup, and is capable of identifying and mapping weeds in all weather conditions using a  mixture of artificial intelligence (AI), geolocation and image processing.

The innovative robot can autonomously map up to 20 hectares of farmland a day and distinguish specific plants at a “minute scale”, the designers said.

Callum Weir, farm manager of the organic farm on the Wimpole Estate, said: “The key advantage of this ground-breaking technology is that it will enable us to be much more precise and targeted in controlling weeds, therefore helping us to increase crop yields and biodiversity.”

Weir added that Tom offers particular advantages in terms of weight. The robot only weighs around 150 kilograms, which compared to a traditional tractor weighing in at seven tonnes, has significant benefits.

The weight of large machinery causes damage to land due to compaction – an issue that is exacerbated during wet weather conditions.

Damaged soil will require far more horsepower to repair it by breaking it up. In turn, this means large heavy tractors are required, which causes even worse compaction.

Tom the robot works closely with ‘Wilma’, the AI aspect of the mapping operation. Wilma merges maps and data collected by the robot and, long-term, will build a year-on-year picture of how farmers can optimise plant density.

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Rob Macklin, the National Trust’s head of farming and soils, explained: “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.

“It is much quoted that unsustainable agriculture could result in only 60 harvests left largely due to soil degradation, erosion, loss of organic matter and biological health. Robots such as ‘Tom’ can help – but as a profession, we need to do much more to regenerate soils to ensure sustainable production going forward.”

The National Trust revealed that a second robot, named ‘Dick’, will be trialled at the farm. This particular device will be capable of locating weeds and killing them using an electric probe.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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