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Waitrose trialling farm robots in new machine learning play

The John Lewis Partnership has announced a three-year trial with the Small Robot Company to test robots at a Waitrose farm in Leckford, Hampshire.

In a move that is part of a wider big data and machine learning play at the retail organisation, the testing of the technology will provide the partnership’s Room Y innovation team with insight to support innovation at the venue. The initiative will also inform how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) could be used further in other areas of the business.

John Lewis Partnership says the autonomous ‘farmbots’ could boost yields, improve soil health and increase efficiency in farming practices at the site which grows products including mushrooms, rapeseed, and apples.

Three small robots – 'Tom', 'Dick' and 'Harry' – will be deployed on a one-hectare wheat field, starting with Tom, which is fitted with cameras to gather topographical data. It is expected to give the retailer a plant-by-plant view of the wheat field, which can be used to inform the farming process.

The data gathered by the prototype Tom robot will be used to develop an AI system called ‘Wilma’, which will eventually guide the three robots to farm autonomously. The trial at the Leckford Estate and other farms will be used to create and test prototype versions of Dick, a precision weeding robot, and Harry, a digital planting robot.

One example of the technology’s expected practical use is the machine learning capability of ‘Dick’, which will learn the difference between weeds and crops, thereby enabling it to kill weeds with lasers.

There’s an environmental benefit too, according to the retailer, with the small robots much lighter than traditional farming tractors meaning they reduce the damage caused to soil by current farming practices. Assuming the machine learning element goes to plan, the robots will take care of every plant on an individual basis, giving them the optimum level of nutrients and support, with no waste.

Andrew Hoad, partner & head of the Leckford Estate, said: “The Waitrose & Partners farm has a long history in producing a wide variety of high-quality crops.

“We work hard to farm in harmony with the environment and our vision for sustainable farming is aligned to what the Small Robot Company is trying to achieve.”

He added that the technology is not designed to replace human labour but instead boost productivity and increase accuracy, “freeing up the agricultural workforce to focus on other important tasks”.

Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company and a fourth generation Shropshire farmer, commented: “We're on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution, taking farming into the digital age: and with British ideas and British technology at the helm.”

Essential Retail was in Japan earlier this month and was given a first look at Panasonic’s AI-enabled robots designed for picking tomatoes in the field. Like Small Robot Company, much of the technology is in prototype phase, but there is a clear aim among businesses around the globe to help improve farming efficiency using robotics and machine learning.

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