Precision ag Mark 1 'A strange selection' by John Billingsley with acknowledgement to A.H. Davis

Chapter III - Our new robot

THE FIRST robot Dad bought was a Mark I ARE Well. it was the first one he would admit to buying. 'Arfur', as we named it, wasn't much to look at. It was about the size of a four-wheeled motorbike, but with a high belly to straddle a row of crop.

All around it were bright orange panels. These were what saved it from the condemnation and fate of the old robot dinosaurs. One kick and Arfur would be stopped dead in his tracks, not just by the magic of electronics but by a solid spoke jamming his wheels.

"But what'll it do?" we all asked. "It can't pull anything and those little hoey things don't look up to much."

"So you enjoy chipping?" asked Dad, and we saw it in a more favourable light.

Even so, "Is that all it can do?" we couldn't help asking.

The instruction book was pretty dog-eared and hard to read. Dad had bought the machine from a bankruptcy sale over near Roma. We studied it hard and found that Arfur was a cunning little chap. If you told him where to find a row crop, he could guide himself to it with his satellite navigation, then use his cameras to follow the row to within a whisker.

Anything spaced at regular intervals, he regarded as a seedling and allowed to grow. But anything stepping out of line got swift attention from his hoes. Alternatively he could give it a squirt from the tank on his back.

That wasn't the end of it. Put him in a cotton crop and he could snuffle out the heliothis grubs. Put him among the cabbages and

his infra-red vision made the caterpillars stand out like beacons. The same went for weeds, which appeared to his spectrum-sensitive scanners as totally different in infra-red colouring from the plants they hid among.

"But it's listing up we need to do right now," said Dad. "He's not up to furrowing up, is he?"

"Well, he can make a good scratch you can follow," said Dave with his nose in the manual.

Dad nearly fell off the shed roof, mounting the box that was the 'base station'. We weren't sure what to do with the CD-ROM full of software, so we pressed a few buttons for a 'manual demo'. A pull on his starter cord - automatic starting would be an added risk - and Arfur went purring away.

I must say that I was really impressed. Each row was as straight as the eye could judge and absolutely parallel to the rest. We left him to it, apart from a refill of fuel, and soon the entire paddock was finished.

Dad was so pleased that Dave didn't have the heart to tell him that, with another five minutes setting up, the rows would all have been parallel with our boundary, rather than being parallel with the paddock in Roma.