World’s first slug-killing robot in field trials next summer

The world’s first robotic slug control system is being developed in the UK, with technology offering autonomous slug monitoring and precision spraying of the pest with a biological treatment.

Slugs present a huge cost to farmers, leading to reduced crop yields, with infestations resulting in poor crop establishment or even failure, in extreme situations.

Currently, farmers can use ferric phosphate or metaldehyde slug pellets to control the pest, although the long-term future of metaldehyde is uncertain.

However, this novel development, named SlugBot, will offer growers an alternative approach by using precision-spraying technology to control the pest. 

A prototype resulting from the initiative led by Jenna Ross from agri-innovation centre Crop Health and Protection, in collaboration with the Small Robot Company; British artificial intelligence firm Cosmonio; and Devon-based farmer, James Lee, is expected to enter field trials in summer 2021.

See also: Herts grower puts hoe to the test in narrow-row cereals

Dr Ross explained how travelling as a Nuffield Farming scholar in 2018 helped her to notice a gap in the market for autonomous slug monitoring.

“This game-changing project fills a market demand and opens up an exciting opportunity for farmers, especially as bio-molluscicides are currently too expensive for use in arable crops,” she said.

How it will work

Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, explained how precision-robotic slug control has tremendous potential for agriculture across the board, with the ability to significantly increase yields by reducing pest damage.

“Slugs are a terrible bane for farmers. They can decimate emerging crops and have a significant effect on yield. Their current treatment is problematic, as water and wildlife have been affected by chemical methods and, with legislation looming, farmers need an affordable alternative,” he said.

He highlighted how the detection and mapping of slug infestations has kick-started today, with initial phases of the project focusing on artificial intelligence and slug detection capability.

Phase two will look at the delivery of slug detection systems using the Small Robot Company’s robotic technology, which implements hyperspectral imagery and artificial intelligence to detect slugs autonomously. Mobile imaging of slugs and field-surface materials in glasshouse conditions will begin this autumn.

The final phase will focus on the development of precision spraying that allows a slug treatment solution to be delivered in-field by robot technology. A prototype will be available in autumn 2021. 

The company aims to deliver a holistic service for all aspects of arable production, including the control of pests and diseases, as well as no-till precision planting.

“Our robots are the tractors of the future, with the potential to integrate just about any agricultural functionality,” said Mr Scott-Robinson.

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