SlugBot — How AI Is Addressing a Slimy Problem

Artificial intelligence is automating slug monitoring & treatment, saving the environment & freeing up farmers to focus on other important tasks

Today marks this year’s April Fools’ Day, when the world’s slickest pranksters get the chance to hoodwink us all with their craftiest practical jokes and hoaxes. I like to think I’m pretty sharp-eyed, but in the past, even I’ve been taken in by a cunning jape or two on this tricksiest of days. And I was convinced the same had happened this morning when I chanced upon an innovation called SlugBot. No, your eyes do not deceive you.

Believe it or not, SlugBot isn’t some cooked-up jest. It is in fact a real invention, dating back two whole decades. This artificial intelligence slithered onto the tech scene in 2001, after computer scientists at the California Institute of Technology dug up a smart solution to every gardener’s slimiest problem: slugs.

These slippery little blighters wreak havoc in green spaces across the globe, chomping their way through all sorts of vegetation and acting as an intermediate host of parasites in various animals, including rats. Through faeces, these can be transmitted to fresh produce, and if those veggies aren’t washed properly before humans eat them, we could get very sick.

But not if SlugBot has anything to do with it. Equipped with specialised light sensors at the end of a long 360-degree-reach arm, this robotic slug catcher was designed to move over soil looking for slugs to exterminate (said, of course, in the menacing voice of a Dalek).

Now, that’s already unsettling news for anyone who does happen to love the globe’s most hated terrestrial gastropod mollusc — of which there are 35,000 species, by the way. Adding to that, it was said the AI could eventually run on the corpses of its slithery victims. When the lawnmower-sized device found an unwitting target, it would collect and store the mischief-maker, relying on bacteria to break it down and use the resulting product as a power source.

Caltech predicted it would take many years for the groundbreaking slug snatcher to be ready for market, and they weren’t wrong. Fast forward to 2021, and the UK government plans to lead the way. Alongside various partners (including UK Agri-Tech Innovation Centre CHAP, agricultural robotics start-up Small Robot Company, artificial intelligence and machine learning experts COSMONiO, and farming enterprise AV and N Lee), it’s in the process of developing a new SlugBot prototype — “the world’s first robotic monitoring and bio-molluscicide treatment system for slugs.”

The innovative project involves the creation of “autonomous slug monitoring and precision treatment” technology, and the government says it plans to test this later in 2021. Excellent news for farmers, who could soon see much greater yields. SlugBot represents a much-needed, affordable alternative to chemical treatments containing environmentally-unfriendly metaldehyde or iron phosphate (sales of such products are now banned in the UK as of yesterday) and nematode products that are financially unviable in arable systems.

Manual slug monitoring is an has long been an option, but the processmethod is variable and requires a lot of time and effort. For that reason, most farmers don’t bother with it. Like the best of AI, this solution will automate an incredibly labour-intensive and inconsistent task, freeing up busy farmers to get on with other important jobs.

Ben Scott-Robinson from Small Robot Company says the company’s “robots are the tractors of the future…multifunctional workhorses with the potential to integrate just about any agricultural functionality.” He adds that “we’re talking here about a Fourth Agricultural Revolution — and with [its] robots sitting right at the heart.”

The breadth of artificial intelligence application never fails to surprise me, so I really shouldn’t have believed for a second that a robotic slug destroyer was an April Fools’ gag. It’s anything but a joke, and I predict some major improvements to UK agriculture. Are you a farmer? Tell me what you think of this game-changing innovation. For more info and to see SlugBot in action, watch this fascinating video from CHAP’s Dr Jenna Ross, who’s leading the project…

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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