Waitrose farming robots

The initiative is designed to increase farmers’ revenues by up to 40% and reduce costs by up to 60%.

Waitrose is to become the first supermarket to start selling food farmed using robots.

The upmarket grocer will use the robots in the wheat fields at its Leckford farm in Hampshire as part of a three-year trial from February 2019.

The initiative comes in a bid to minimise the need for chemicals and reduce costs. It is also designed to increase farmers’ revenues by up to 40%, reduce costs by up to 60% and boost the quality of soil and efficiency.

Waitrose will use three robots from startup Small Robot Company, and each will have a specific role. The first will monitor and place soil on crops, one will weed and spray them with water, and the third is the planting robot.

The first will be a prototype designed to move autonomously to pin-point accurate data and plant-by-plant views of crops in the field. The robot recognises where weeds are growing by taking thousands of pictures while travelling across fields, and can inform farmers where the weeds are and in what quantities using pattern-recognition and GPS technology.

It also means pesticides can be distributed in the areas they are needed rather than across the entire field.

The second robot will autonomously spot the difference between weeds and crops, and kill weeds with lasers, and the third will drill into the soil, plant seeds and replace those that have not grown as expected, as well as create a map showing the exact location of each one.

Read more: 10 robotic farmers working around the globe

Data gathered by the prototype will be used to develop an AI system which will eventually guide the three robots to farm autonomously.

Waitrose hopes the trial will provide it with insight to support innovation at the 4,000-acre Leckford Estate, and inform how robotics and AI could be used in other areas of the business.

If the test proves successful, the robots will then be used to harvest rapeseed.

“This new technology could be revolutionary for British farming. It 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,” said head of the Leckford Estate Andrew Hoad. “We want to be at the forefront of this, and ensure we leave our soils and environment in great shape for future generations. 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.”

Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, said: “Together, we will be working to reimagine food production. 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. Our robots will completely transform what’s possible on the farm - different crops could be planted alongside each other in the same field, and harvested at different times. It’s the ultimate sustainable farming model.”