Small Robot Company joins UK’s 5G RuralDorset project

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Small Robot Company (SRC), a British agtech start-up for sustainable farming, has joined the 5G RuralDorset project together with Wessex Internet, Telint and Dorset Council. The project aims to develop and prove a blueprint for rural-optimised 5G connectivity, featuring the world’s first 5G-ready ‘agbot’ for arable farms.

The resulting 5G blueprint will enable rapid deployment of 5G to rural areas via an affordable, reliable and interoperable 5G network that is custom designed for farmers and the particular challenges of rural connectivity. The £7 million project is being part-funded (£4.5m) by the UK’s Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport as part of its 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme.

The 5G robotics trial aims to demonstrate a revolution in farming, increasing productivity, yields and biodiversity while simultaneously reducing environmental impact. Importantly, it also looks to improve soil health and reduce emissions, helping farmers meet the UK agriculture target of Net Zero by 2040.

5G RuralDorset

Wessex Internet will be delivering three farm 5G networks on the back of its existing 2,100km full-fibre network as part of the 5G RuralDorset trials. As a company with a farming background, the rural connectivity provider will be aiming to experiment with a 5G network which is fit for the industry – testing the technical and commercial viability of 5G deployment models in rural areas.

The trials will be the first to demonstrate wide-scale autonomy of robotic farming operation, including the development of the UK’s first ‘5G-ready’ agbot; development of the first scalable, costed, ‘as a service’ agbot product; development of SRC’s first ‘ready-for-market’, ‘fit-for-purpose’ agbot; and development of SRC’s on-farm 5G-enabled robot ‘kennel’. The 5G-connected Robot Handler App also brings the potential of a remote operator seeing live data or taking live control of the robot.

Small Robot Company will build and provide a 5G-enabled ‘Tom’ monitoring robot, Kennel and Robot Handler App. In addition, the project scope includes a 5G-enabled ‘Dick’ non-chemical weeding robot. SRC will test this capability in Dorset from October 2021 to March 2022, writing a report on the resulting outcomes and benefits for its Farming-as-a-Service robotics model. SRC robot trials will take place at the Ranston Farm 5G trial site.

In particular, the trial will examine within-farm robot-to-kennel communications, to ensure real-time capabilities. The on-farm 5G-enabled robot ‘kennels’ will aim to process huge volumes of data from robots ‘on the fly’, exploiting the benefits of using higher frequency 5G spectrum and infrastructure so farmers can take more timely corrective action to maximise yields and minimise pesticide use – vital given the British weather!

Mike Donnachie, farm manager at Ranston Farms noted: “Having precise and accurate data to hand so I can make instant decisions will bring great benefit into the future.”

Agricultural productivity

Alongside the work with Small Robot Company, Wessex Internet is working with other future industry players to trial uses of 5G connectivity in agriculture, to boost productivity. The aim is to deliver novel high/mid bandwidth 5G solutions and breakthrough innovation within agriculture. Anticipated benefits include empowering farmers with cost-effective, interoperable agtech; and more localised and efficient supply chains, linking local needs with local produce to improve food security, reduce waste and provide higher-value local produce.

5G robotics could completely revolutionise farming, bringing enormous benefits to the environment. Rural-optimised 5G connectivity also allows for the potential to reduce the cost of operating robots, which is already significantly less than conventional farm machinery.

It is anticipated that 5G robotics will enable real-time capabilities such as the ability to quickly identify pests like slugs and immediately take action; and enabling farmers to act faster to exploit the UK’s dry weather windows. Reducing the use of pesticides by improved precision mapping and weeding without the use of herbicides can improve biodiversity and soil health. It will also provide farmers with live operational information such as soil moisture and crop emergence. Seamless and real-time data and systems integration will also break down vertical silos, eliminating manual data transfer, reducing costs and greatly improving decision making.

This 5G blueprint could be a catalyst for rural economies – with our robots demonstrating the potential for 5G to transform agricultural productivity. Connectivity is not a luxury. It’s a utility. And vital to economic performance,” commented Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO and co-founder, Small Robot Company.5G technological development within agriculture is vital post-Brexit. One of the biggest obstacles facing UK farmers in adopting new technologies is poor connectivity around the farm. This 5G blueprint will pave the way for growth in the rural economy – and alongside it greatly-improved quality of life.”

Hector Gibson Fleming, managing director of Wessex Internet explained: “Our work taking full-fibre broadband to farms, homes and businesses in rural communities has shown us how great connectivity can transform countryside communities. But connectivity across farms remains a massive issue. Exciting technological developments in agriculture have the potential to transform farming, but are held back by poor connectivity and mobile coverage. We hope the 5G networks we’re building across a number of Dorset farms, and the exciting 5G applications we’re trialling, such as Small Robot Company’s agri-robots, will be a shining example of what the future can look like.”

Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “As we level up rural communities, we’re proud to be backing 5G RuralDorset and the many innovative projects it’s involved with – from intelligent buoys to 5G seaweed farms. This has huge potential to close the divide between rural and urban areas and transform agriculture as we build back better and greener for a more prosperous future.”

Sam Watson Jones, President and co-founder, Small Robot Company, concluded: “The opportunity is immense. Our technology is closely aligned with the new Agricultural Bill, at the heart of these systemic changes in farming. The 5G RuralDorset Project is an opportunity for us to work with farmers to create a more sustainable and productive farming model. The recent huge advances in agtech finally make this possible: and farmers are integral to the environmental solution.”

The project will trial the following technological advances:

Ultra Low Latency and Spectrum (ULLC). Currently, 6 Terabytes of data is collected by the prototype Tom robot daily. Only at the end of each day is this data uploaded from the field robots, manually. SRC will look at how 5G spectrum can provide low latency and enough bandwidth to automate these processes. This will enable a robot to make in-field decisions based on live information and ultimately reduce downtime and associated costs

Massive Machine Communications – Currently, there is no interaction between robots and other devices or machines. Data is collected by the robot but not shared. The project will explore how processing at the edge will enable the robot to talk to other devices in the field and send information to other machines for precision agriculture purposes, as well as also to the Robot Kennel

AI and Precision Agriculture – Currently, robots rely on satellite data to provide locational information. This is not accurate enough when we aim to target individual weeds to 2cm accuracy. Using 5G spectrum, the project will explore the best way to deliver more precise locational information. This will improve the accuracy of both robots and data; enabling true precision agriculture – a world first.

5G wireless technologies testbed – the project will deploy a range of wireless technologies across its existing fixed radio infrastructure. Wessex Internet will look at how agricultural use cases can leverage Internet-of-Things (IoT) network infrastructure to deliver environmental and cost benefits to rural businesses and communities. Furthermore, the project will investigate how mid-frequency 5G can be used to enable high bandwidth requirement agricultural use cases within real-life farming environments.

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