Farms of the future could feature flocks of robots roaming the fields, cultivating and harvesting crops, Professor Dick Godwin told a Royal Academy of Engineering meeting on food security today 21 October. Professor Godwin, former Head of Engineering at Cranfield University’s National Soil Resources Institute at Silsoe and a Fellow of the Academy, says such devices, already in development, could save energy as well as labour.

Professor Simon Blackmore of Bristol Robotics Laboratory, is developing prototype field robots for tasks like seeding, weeding and automated harvesting – about the size of small ride-on mowers. He has recently developed an autonomous mower that can even cut the grass at night. The route plan can be derived from Google Earth, the computer plots a trajectory to cover the whole field and off goes the robot, guided by RTK GPS to within 2 cm.

“The key advantage of these field robots is that they will be much lighter than the machines we use at present,” says Professor Godwin. You could harvest a light crop like lettuces using a team of robots weighing around 100 kg each instead of a 5 tonne harvester. Robots that small could be powered from hybrid technologies or even biodiesel. Because they’re light they don’t compact the soil like a big machine, which means less energy is wasted ploughing.”

Professor Godwin wants technology like this to be considered to help the UK produce food more efficiently. He has sobering messages for food producers and the Government on how the UK can help the world feed itself if current population projections are borne out:

“If it hadn’t been for the current financial crisis, we’d have been reminded by now that we’re going to have serious problems with food and fuel supply if the world’s population continues to rise towards 9 billion. Lots of fresh produce is flown into the UK, much of it from developing countries – why fly it here, with all the carbon emissions that entails, when they need it? Thirty years ago we produced 75 per cent of our own food – now that figure is only 58 per cent.”

He will highlight the need to reduce enormous post-harvest losses of food, particularly in the developing world. In some locations in Russia up to 40 per cent of grain has been lost in storage – ventilation, vermin, humidity and temperature are the key issues to address but Professor Godwin warns that vital capacity to assist in tropical food storage has been lost.

“If food wasn’t spoilt in storage or transit we would be much nearer to feeding the world,” he says. The UK used to lead the world in managing and storing food – we had 100 researchers at the Tropical Storage Institute providing advice but that’s all gone now.

“If the UK wants to make a real difference to food production in developing countries then the key is ‘spade with trade and appropriate aid’ – we can do this best by helping people to help themselves. At Silsoe we used to bring 140 students a year from overseas to study agricultural engineering techniques with British Council funding but that scheme has now stopped.”

The Academy is delighted to collaborate with the Institution of Civil Engineers and Institution of Agricultural Engineers in organising this meeting.

Notes for editors

  1. Professor Godwin was speaking at Engineering and Global Food Security, a meeting to be held at the Royal Academy of Engineering, 3 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1, on Tuesday 21 October, chaired by DFID Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Gordon Conway.
  2. More information on autonomous farm vehicles is available onliine with details and pictures of concept designs at:
  3. www.unibots.com/Agricultural_Robot_Designs.htm
  4. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

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For more information please contact: Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering

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