Farms tend to conjure up images of flat prairies crammed with corn, but a surprising amount of farmland is situated on hillsides that are difficult to get to or maintain. To help keep these high fields clear for livestock, UK-based technology firm Ibex Automation is starting fully autonomous field trials in England's Peak District of its extreme mobility agricultural robot that can maneuver around steep dairy and sheep pastures as it identifies and destroys weeds.
According to Ibex, Britain alone has about 41,000 sheep and 17,000 dairy farms with an average size of 140 acres (57 hectares) and the fields are susceptible to weeds that could be toxic or grow into bushes. The latter is of particular worry on sheep farms, where the ovine inhabitants have a habit of seeking out anything they can get tangled in.
Dealing with these weeds is hard enough on flat lowland areas, but in higher elevations on fields that are at steep angles and only accessible by mud tracks the alternatives are between wasteful and environmentally hazardous area herbicide spraying and manual spraying costing thousands of pounds per year as workers risk injury in the high elevations.
Ibex sees an autonomous robot farmer as a cheaper and safer alternative that could not only make tending existing upland farms easier, but also open previously inaccessible areas to livestock and cultivation. The robot now undergoing testing is an autonomous tracked platform with sensors and software similar to that of an autonomous car. It can negotiate mud, thick vegetation, and slippery bracken on slopes of up to 45 degrees, which is steeper than tractors and quad bikes can handle.
The robot also has sensors that allow it to identify encroaching weeds and destroy them individually rather than with broadcast spraying. This is done with a robotic arm, but different payloads can be swapped out or it can be used for haulage. Meanwhile, the tracks reduce ground pressure, so it causes less damage as it traverses the countryside. Ibex says that the robot can navigate independently to pick out the best routes and provides live video feeds to a remote supervisor in case human aid is required. It can also operate for up to a day away from its base.
"Ibex is the first agricultural robot designed to tackle extreme agricultural environments such as the Yorkshire hill farms," says Dr Charles Fox, project manager of Ibex at Hunshelf Hall Farm. "Taking the concept beyond university labs and overcoming extreme terrain mobility limitations, we designed and built Ibex to military standards, to go where other vehicles can't operate and to tackle a real world problem affecting many farmers around the UK. We have a very interested and active user group of local farmers and we're continually using their advice."
Ibex says the field tests will continue until later this year and expects the robot will cost about the same as an all-terrain vehicle.