Robots ‘can transform future of farming’

The design of agricultural machinery needs to be overhauled if it is to meet the needs of modern farmers, according to a leading academic.

Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University, said current technology used on farms does not necessarily help farmers become more efficient, and the perception that “bigger is better” was not always correct.

Speaking at a Farming Futures conference on agricultural technology in Coventry on Wednesday (23 January), Prof Blackmore said many farms had become overpowered by large machines.

But farming systems needed to change to help producers adapt to the challenges of climate change and using fewer inputs, and the types of machinery they used had to change too.

“The current farming system is like a production line and hasn’t changed since World War Two,” said Prof Blackmore.

“Trying to overcome the challenges we face just through yield isn’t right. We need to move from a production-only system to flexible manufacturing, and that involves getting new technologies to allow farmers to be more responsive than they have been.”

More: Does the future lies in robots or driverless tractors?

While machinery had become larger and larger in a bid to help farmers keep costs down, Prof Blackmore added that bigger kit actually risked creating wider problems for producers in terms of soil damage.

Instead, he said manufacturers needed to redesign machinery which was more suited to smaller UK fields as well as the country’s climate.

“Many farmers have small numbers of very large tractors, but are they really matched to the task they want to carry out? Very often, larger tractors aren’t efficient.

“We are also seeing the effects of big tractors in terms of their inability to get into a field when we want them to if it’s too wet. The problem is their weight, not their power.”

In the coming years, Prof Blackmore said he expected to see smaller machines being introduced onto farms to work alongside larger ones, with more emphasis being placed on robotics.

“We are not far away from being able to commercialise some robots so we can start bringing them onto farms,” he said.

Phased harvesting, seeding depth to moisture, permanent planting positions and crop scouting could all be achieved by robots in future, helping farmers drive down inputs and materials.

But despite the expected increase in agricultural robot use, rural workforces should not feel threatened, he added.

“I don’t think we will see a reduction in farmworkers, but we will see a shift in the skill level.

“We will have less semi-skilled labour working machines, but we will have a need for equal numbers of highly-skilled agricultural robot engineers – the next generation of farm staff.”

(Read how Peterborough company Garford launched its robotic weeding equipment at Lamma ).