Those of us who have struggled to fit a family-sized vehicle into a busy multi-storey parking space know only too well that the average size of our automobiles has got bigger. But is bigger always better? Those drivers who’ve invested in a smart car would argue not – and so would Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. He predicts that in the near future farmers and growers will ditch their monster-sized tractors in favour of smaller, smarter, precision machines. Produce Business UK speaks to Blackmore to find out why
A vicious circle
Blackmore explains that the type of large, heavy machinery commonly used by UK growers is actually causing so much damage that producers are worried about what they are doing to their fields.
This, notes Blackmore, is particularly the case during periods of wet weather when big tractors wreak havoc on muddy soils. But, he adds, there is no such thing as “the wrong soil or the wrong weather” – just “the wrong tractor”.
Farmers and growers are currently caught in a vicious circle, whereby up to 90% of the work that they put into cultivating their crops ironically goes into repairing the damage caused by their big machines. This damage includes soil compaction since up to 96% of the area of fields is compacted by such vehicles.
Blackmore says: “If we do not damage the soil in the first place, we do not need to repair it, so let’s break this very expensive cycle of doing lots of cultivation work.” He adds that growers need only to look at the healthy soils in forests to be reminded that, when soil is left alone, the natural flora and fauna will create an excellent soil structure for growing.
Starting a “revolution”
Small, smart agricultural machines are, asserts Blackmore, significantly more efficient than traditional tractors, which have been designed “for pulling bits of metal through the soil”.
“If we stop dragging bits of metal through the soil then we do not need the weight and we do not have these problems,” he explains. “I believe we can have a revolution in agriculture through smarter and smaller robotics.”
As well as being head of engineering at Harper Adams, Blackmore is the director of the university’s National Centre for Precision Farming, where students are busily developing designs for small, robotic, agricultural machines.
He believes these designs could ultimately bring many benefits to the entire food production industry. For example, he claims they could:
- Make food production more sustainable.
- Lower the cost of food production.
- Reduce the amount of energy needed to produce crops.
- Protect the environment.
- Make agriculture and horticulture “significantly” more efficient.
Lasers and robots: the future?
With these benefits in mind, Blackmore and his teams are developing some exciting prototypes for all aspects of the food production cycle – such as for the precise drilling of seed beds (a process known as “micro-tillage”), and for the weeding and harvesting of crops.
Harper Adams’ students have already developed a prototype for an “ultra-light seeding robot” that can carry out a range of crop duties, according to Blackmore. These include both micro tillage and planting seeds into the ground in any weather conditions without damaging the soil.
The university’s engineering students have also worked on a project for the University of Athens in Greece that has resulted in the development of a “crop scouting” robot for vineyards. This particular robot features a thermal camera that measures how much irrigation the crop requires and also uses LIDAR technology to measure the density of the crop’s canopy.
Blackmore adds that the university is currently involved in a couple of similar projects, including a three-year, industry-sponsored study that started in 2014. This will see the development of a laser-weeding machine that can recognise the growing point of the weed and kill the weed by heating it at this growing point.
Picking out the best
“Selective harvesting” is another area of research for Blackmore’s team since at the moment, up to 60% of harvested crops is not of “saleable quality”.
He explains: “Selective harvesting is exactly what we do at the moment when we go to the supermarket and see a bunch of lettuces in front of us. Do we pick out the best one or the worst one? We take out the best one. We ought now to be doing selective harvesting in the field. We should be able to develop machines that assess what’s in front of them and only pick out the part of the crop that is 100% marketable quality, so we can not only harvest but [also] grade at the point of harvest. If we can do that we significantly add value to that crop before it leaves the field.”
Blackmore reveals that his researchers are therefore working with a group of growers on a robotic strawberry harvesting project. “We pick the crop and look at a number of quality attributes, such as shelf-life and sweetness, and then grade them [the fruits] at the point of harvest,” he notes.
Sustaining the sector
Blackmore is confident that mobile robots will soon be used commercially in the arable and horticulture sectors. As he points out, the food supply chain is now expected to farm economically, and in a way that has minimal impact on the environment.
The UK is also producing food in the midst of ever-tighter legislation from the European Union – and our weather is more volatile. Meanwhile, British food producers are competing with other countries that have potentially cheaper food prices. Yet despite all of these demands, the precision farming technologies being developed at Harper Adams are mainly still in their early stages of development.
It may be that it is in UK buyers’ interest to show their support these research programmes – and to help roll out these new technologies on a wider, commercial scale. Blackmore, for one, is quick to point out that he and his teams are “always interested” in collaborative industry partnerships.