The futuristic IBEX robots have been designed to locate, identify and destroy weeds on farmland in areas not normally accessible for conventional pesticide spraying equipment.
Project manager Dr Charles Fox is testing the rugged robots in the fields around Stocksbridge, Sheffield, and hopes the machines will soon be able to identify weeds and pests for themselves.
Dr Fox, who is living on-site in a caravan at a farm, said: “We can program them to identify features in weeds, such as the jagged edges on the leaves of a nettle.
“The robots will then use GPS and machine vision to drive around a site and locate any plant which matches with these features.”
Using technology similar to that found in self-driving cars, cameras mounted on the robots identify objects which could be hazards or targets for the machines’ weed killing capabilities.
A rugged, military design makes them the first machines of their kind and allows them to work in challenging environments, including South Yorkshire’s hillside farms.
They travel across thick mud, tough plants and on slopes of up to 45 degrees.
It is hoped the IBEX machines will boost productivity for farmers and will reduce the waste associated with some conventional farming practices.
Co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, IBEX robots are designed to be precise, like human crop sprayers, while reducing the environmental impact, fuel costs and labour costs for farmers caused by bulk herbicide spraying.
Dr Fox said: “There’s no way to treat individual plants for specific issues with today’s farming practices, which can lead to wasted produce. These robots can isolate plants and give them treatment they need to make the crop more productive.”
He believes that although academics and university professors have been writing and talking about automated machines for some time, now is the time to begin developing functioning, autonomous robots.