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Robot farmer starts trials in UK, saves time and money

Staff writer |
The IBEX project announced the start of fully autonomous trials of their extreme mobility agricultural robot.

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The robot will drive itself around steep grassland dairy and sheep farms identifying and destroying weeds.

Co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, IBEX robots aim to be precise, like human sprayers. They reduce fuel costs and labour usage for farmers while massively reducing the environmental impact caused by bulk herbicide spraying.

Tasked with identifying and destroying encroaching weeds on remote hillsides that are uneconomical to spray manually or too dangerous to drive on with a tractor or quad bike, the IBEX autonomous platform is capable of safely traversing slopes up to 45 degrees through mud and thick vegetation, including bracken.

"IBEX is the first agricultural robot designed to tackle extreme agricultural environments such as the Yorkshire hill farms," said 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 is due to complete user and autonomous trials later this year.

The UK has approximately 41,000 sheep and 17,000 dairy farms, averaging 140 acres per farm. Each requires around £1000 per year to spray manually at £8/hour, a cost which is increasing rapidly, with the introduction of the new living wage set to increase this further.

Immigration restrictions and health and safety requirements mean this cost is now too high for many farmers to justify spraying at all, resulting in many fields being 10% or more weed-covered, reducing grazing available for animals and consequently increasing food costs to the consumer.

The technology used for IBEX is similar to self-driving cars and is set to make a huge difference to rural agriculture. Trials to date have already generated a significant amount of interest, especially locally.

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