By: Sandrine Ceurstemont, Editor, New Scientist TV

October 26, 2012 — Move over farmers: soon a swarm of robots could take over all the hard labour. A new robot developed by David Dorhout and colleagues from Dorhout R&D is designed to plant seeds in a field while coordinating with a gang of other robotic farmhands.

In this video, you can see the prototype in action. The robot can walk in any direction while avoiding obstacles, using a sensor underneath its body to detect where seeds have already been planted. Once it finds an untouched patch, it drills a hole in the ground and releases a seed, triggering an electronic eye that guides the planting.

The robot's communication system is inspired by the way ants self-organise. When an ant finds a food source, it releases a pheromone that attracts other ants. In a similar way, a robot can beam out an infrared signal to recruit help, overriding the random movement of the swarm and directing them to areas that need to be farmed. "There's no long-term memory, there's no centralised command and control: robots just follow simple rules from which complex behaviour arises," says Dorhout.

Whereas other automated systems are designed to replace people with electronics - tractors that drive themselves, for example - Dorhout's approach is to improve the farming process. By providing assistance, a robot swarm allows farmers to focus on the science and business side of their operation. "The farmer is like the shepherd that gives the robot instructions," says Dorhout. Robots are also able to transcend the limitations of farm equipment to maximise efficiency, for example by planting in a grid instead of rows.

So far, the prototype is able only to plant seeds. But the system is being developed to weed, fertilise and harvest as well, ultimately creating autonomous robots that can perform whatever tasks are necessary year round.

For more about the robotic future of farming, check out New Scientist TV's full-length feature, "Farmerbots: a new industrial revolution".