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These robots taser weeds to death so farmers don’t need chemical herbicides

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Imagine if every time a weed appeared in your garden, a bolt of lightning came down from the heavens and zapped it off the face of the planet. Were this the case, you could be fairly certain of two things: That you had a higher power firmly on side and that you probably don’t want to be walking around your garden with all that deadly lightning flying about.

A similar but more realistic solution has presented itself in the form of a new agricultural robotics startup called the Small Robot Company. The U.K.-based firm offers a trio of robots that will kill weeds with electricity.

“Our first farm-ready robot, Tom, is now in four of our trial farms — including [U.K. supermarket] Waitrose and the National Trust,” Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, told Digital Trends. “He’s delivering our first commercial service: Weed mapping. Once you know where all the weeds are, you can zap them individually.”

Tom is capable of covering 20 hectares (50 acres) per day, sorting plants from weeds. It will then pass this information on to Dick, a robot that uses a chemical-free weed killing method in which electricity is used to boil weeds from the inside. Dick will begin field trials in the new year, with commercial service starting in 2021. The final member of the team, Harry, will then follow in 2022. Harry is an automated planting robot which can sow seeds and record their exact location.

“One of the biggest challenges facing humanity today is how will we feed 9 billion people sustainably by 2050,” Watson Jones said. “Using artificial intelligence and next-generation geolocation technology, we can see every single plant in the field — and are now starting to care for them individually. This is a data set that has never existed before, and will entirely change what’s possible on the farm. We’ll be able to plant different plants alongside each other, harvesting them at different times, breaking down monocultures, and farming much more in line with nature. The ultimate sustainable farming model.”

The company is planning to start out in the U.K. market, focused on wheat. Longer term, it hopes to also use the technology for arable crops including barley, soy, and rice. “We’ve had interest from all over the world, including China, India and South America,” Watson Jones said.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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