An agricultural robot that traverses farmland to root out and destroy weeds is being tested in Yorkshire.
The device, which is being developed as part of a project called IBEX, promises to reduce fuel costs and labour usage for farmers while significantly lowering the environmental impact caused by bulk herbicide spraying.
It is capable of 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 robot's designers say it can safely traverse slopes up to 45 degrees through mud and thick vegetation, including bracken and it uses tracks to reduce the ground pressure to increase the range of terrain it can travel across.
On-board sensors provide altitude information to ensure stable operation over all terrain. Navigational systems similar to those used by self-driving cars allow it to move around a plot and avoid obstacles.
Two prototype robots are currently being tested in a field around the developers’ workshop with additional testing in peak district moorlands and a 200 acre farm.
"IBEX is the first agricultural robot designed to tackle extreme agricultural environments such as the Yorkshire hill farms." said Dr Charles Fox, project manager of IBEX.
"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.”
The robot's batteries are designed to last for a full day. Fox says that energy could come from renewable sources, reducing the need for fossil-fuel powered tractors in agriculture.
Autonomous robotics could bring about valuable change in the farming industry. There are large swathes of inaccessible land in poor economic areas that, if brought under control, could be made useful for grazing or even arable farming.
The technology could one day allow robots to tend to crops on a per-plant basis, more like human horticulturists than current bulk farming methods which can waste up to 40 per cent of crops.
The current prototype has an always-active video and data link that allows a supervisor to intervene if required or if the control systems determine that user input is necessary.
The project is co-funded by the government body Innovate UK.