Quick background on Small Robot Company…
With crop productivity stagnant and farmland shrinking, how on earth are we going to feed 10 billion people by 2050?
Small robots. Why of course (!)
Founded two years ago, London-based AgriTech startup, Small Robot Company is building a fleet of nimble AI-powered übermachines that will increase crop yields by as much as 40% using fewer chemicals and fertilizers (95% fewer chemicals, and 90% less energy to be exact).
In the past, mass production farming was designed to be fast, not accurate (in a “if you see one weed, you spray the whole field” kind of way).
As a result, these agricultural practices can only be characterized as resource intensive and inefficient. Heavy tractors damage soil and plant roots, and cause soil erosion. Gratuitous use of pesticides and fertilizers (40% of these chemicals never even come into contact with the crops) are costly, wasteful, and ultra-harmful. Recent research emerged that Monsanto’s widely adopted fertilizer, Roundup is carcinogenic (unleashing 9000 + lawsuits against the farming behemoth). Popular nitrogen fertilizers even leech into the soil, causing pollution (like the massive flush of algae the size of Wales off the coast of Mexico..)
This company is part of a new wave of precision agriculture (or “Precision Ag” as people in the field call it) using robots to “seed, feed, and weed” autonomously and – most notably – in exact accordance to the needs of the individual plant.
The effects of customized care for plants?
Win for the environment: promoting biodiversity, eliminating vast majority of the chemical waste and resource inputs, as well as the damage to the fields caused by tractors (robots are much lighter than, say a John Deere tractor).
Win for the farmer: reducing costs by up to 60% (fewer costly inputs like chemicals and fertilizers)… plus, these robots do a lot of the laborious tasks like weeding – in theory freeing up farmers’ time for other things.
Win for Small Robot Company.
Meet the field hands of the future…
Small Robot Company is launching a team of four complementary farmers :
1) Tom is using AI to digitize the farm by monitoring every square meter of soil, and the status of each and every plant (does the plant need to be watered?) He even suggests the appropriate fertilizer or chemical to optimize yield. Tom even controls Dick and Harry (his two righthand field robo-men), and send reports back to Wilma.
2) Dick does the feeding and non-chemical weeding (with his electrical charged arm).
3) Harry is the planter – and he does so with soil health top of mind (or, lines of code). He also sends back data on where he’s planted each and every seed.
4) Wilma utilizes all the data the other three send back to her – and with a little help from AI software and the company’s crop data model, she helps farmers make decisions around timing, care and sales.
Why this is SO EXCITING…
Agriculture has been through an industrial revolution but it is a revolution that has exhausted itself. Like many technologies that mature, advances in crop yields (including those from fertilizers and chemicals) have followed a classic S curve. The growth of the past three decades has been rather flat.
Take wheat. From 1930-1990, it went through a 4x increase in productivity, but is now a globally traded commodity, and the price hasn’t increased (same for barley and oats).
As a result, farms are becoming less profitable. Revenues and yields for combinable crops have remained steadily flat for quarter of a century. But production costs ($$$ chemicals and fertilizers) keep going up, as do prices for big, expensive, machinery (those heavy tractors).
EU subsidies have propped up 85% of farmers (otherwise they aren’t profitable) in the UK. But with Brexit looming, the vast majority of British farmers could be in trouble.
Small Robot Company could play a major role in enabling farmers to get themselves out of the red – without relying on the government.
Sam Watson Jones is the company’s co-founder. He hails from a long background of farmers, but did a brief stint in management consulting at Accenture. After he left his office job, Sam went back to his family farm in middle of UK and saw that “agribusiness simply didn’t work.”
“There was significant opportunity to leverage technology in a profession that had remained unchanged for decades.”
Sam also witnessed a huge exodus from farming: the children of long established farming families were fast seeking other types of work. “As farmers we spend a huge amount of time doing jobs that we are uniquely able to do as human beings, like sitting on a tractor”, shared Sam. “These things would be better automated and done by machines, leaving the people on the farm to do higher value, more creative tasks.” Farming can be a lonely and difficult profession, and the industry has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK.
Technology like Small Robot Company’s could also offer huge social benefits by freeing farmers up to focus on “adding value to food production in non-manual ways”. This could in turn help change the perception of the role of farmers and the ways career in food are perceived in the future.
When we asked Sam about robots replacing farmers’ work altogether, he explained that mechanization is already replacing jobs and the work of his robo-fleet would simply allow the farmer to do meaningful work.
On the FaaS (Farming as a Service) Model …
Sam and his team had numerous conversations with farmers prior to launching Small Robot Company, the takeaways of which reinforced how risk averse Sam’s prospective customers are when it comes to making big investments in new technology.
Farmers – especially smaller scale ones – don’t have budgets for new equipment. Plus they don’t want to take the risk of purchasing new expensive machinery (especially a robot).
Farming as a Service (FaaS) – where agribusinesses pay a subscription fee to rent the robots – was actually the farmers’ idea. This model allows Small Robot Company to reduce the risk for its customers while also opening up new markets where the CapEx would have been a barrier.
On SDGs and sustainability…
“Big agriculture emphasises efficiency, rather than sustainability,” explained Sam.
Precision agriculture allows for both reintroduction of biodiversity and a redesign of the countryside.
Farms have traditionally been limited to using square fields and growing a single crop due to the constraints of the machinery utilized. With these robots, farmers can harvest a plant in an “awkward plot” on a crop by crop basis. Farms can even grow a whole host of different crops at the same time on the same land which reduces the need for chemicals: biodiversity naturally limits disease spreading. No more need to rotate crops. Plus you can have a plant that naturally fixes the nitrogen next to a plant that needs nitrogen.
Though Sam shared that sustainability is core to reason the company’s raison d’etre, it “doesn’t factor into the startup’s day to day,” he admits. Rather, the key for Small Robot Company’s growth is all about costing the farmer less. “Then we will have a successful business and achieve our sustainability goals.”
Fortunately, this company’s model is designed such that costing the farmer less also means costing the earth less.