John Harris

Journalist & Author

‘We’ll have space bots with lasers, killing plants’: the rise of the robot farmer

Tiny automated machines could soon take care of the entire growing process. Fewer chemicals, more efficient – where’s the downside?

In a quiet corner of rural Hampshire, a robot called Rachel is pootling around an overgrown field. With bright orange casing and a smartphone clipped to her back end, she looks like a cross between an expensive toy and the kind of rover used on space missions. Up close, she has four USB ports, a disc-like GPS receiver, and the nuts and bolts of a system called Lidar, which enables her to orient herself using laser beams. She cost around £2,000 to make.

Every three seconds, Rachel takes a closeup photograph of the plants and soil around her, which will build into a forensic map of the field and the wider farm beyond. After 20 minutes or so of this, she is momentarily disturbed by two of the farm’s dogs, unsure what to make of her.

‘It could be used in the wrong way. You could have entire states in the US with no one in them’

A laser bot can recognise 800 types of weed and destroy them with precision targeting

In the US, robots harvest lettuce and strawberries. In France, they prune grapevines

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