A new Innovate UK grant-funded project seeks to establish a robotic system to monitor and control slugs in field crops using biopesticides.

The SlugBot project is a collaboration between Agri-Tech catalyst Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), the Small Robot Company (SRC), artificial intelligence (AI) specialist COSMONiO and Devon faming business AV & N Lee, a former AHDB Monitor Farm. The partners intend to have a precision spraying SlugBot robot prototype in early field trials by summer 2021.

The initiative is led by CHAP’s Dr Jenna Ross, who says that while the major molluscicide active metaldehyde is under threat of withdrawal, bio-molluscicide alternatives using parasitic nematodes to kill the slugs are presently too expensive for arable crop usage. Precision application of the latter products would reduce the environmental impact of metaldehyde, in line with the activities of its Stewardship Group (MSG), while easing the pressure on ferric phosphate as an active.

SRC’s “Tom” robot

The project is in three phases – firstly developing AI slug detection capability using multispectral imagery. Secondly, using this application on the SRC “Tom” robot to detect slugs in the field both at scale and autonomously. The team hopes for mobile imaging of slugs and field-surface materials in glasshouse conditions by autumn 2020, moving to field scale detection and mapping of slug infestations by spring 2021. The final phase, using the SRC “Dick” precision spraying robot to deliver an in-field slug treatment, should be ready for autumn 2021. The “Dick” machine is already due to start field trials of its non-chemical precision weeding application this year, with a commercial “weed zapping” service anticipated from autumn 2021.

“Robotic slug control is a natural next step for Small Robot Company,” says co-founder Ben Scott-Robinson. “Precision robotics has tremendous potential for agriculture across the board. Slugs are a terrible bane for farmers. But treatment is problematic. Both water and wildlife have been impacted by chemical methods. Legislation is looming – farmers need an affordable alternative.

“The longer-term plan is to deliver a holistic service for all aspects of arable crop care and protection, including the ability to handle all pests and diseases, as well as no-till precision planting. First up, we tackled weed zapping. Next it will be spot applications for precision treatment. This alone is game-changing for the chemicals industry with far reaching implications. But this is just the start. We’re talking here about a Fourth Agricultural Revolution – and with our robots sitting right at the heart. Small is – potentially – massive,” Mr Scott-Robinson concludes.

The grant under Innovate UK’s SMART call runs for 18 months from this April. To date, SRC has benefitted from £1.22 million in Innovate UK grants, including £800,000 in 2018 for its ‘Wilma’ artificial intelligence weed recognition and ‘Tom’ weed mapping technologies.