|Robots are on a quest to eliminate weeds / Photo Credit: kung_tom (via Shutterstock)|
Eric Guizzo of magazine IEEE Spectrum writes that what makes the crops at the Salinas Valley in California, known as “America’s salad bowl,” unique are the big orange robots that roll through. The units are on a search-and-destroy mission to eliminate weeds. The robots are equipped with tractor-like wheels, cameras, and environmental sensors to look out for weeds. They drive autonomously up and down the produce to exterminate the leafy invaders. The robots yield a retractable hoe to kill the weeds swiftly and precisely rather than use an herbicide.
The robots are from San Francisco-based startup FarmWise, a company that seeks to leverage robotics and AI to make agriculture more sustainable and tastier. The firm raised $14.5 million in a recent funding round. In 2020, it plans to send out its first commercial fleet of robots, with over 10 units serving farmers in the Salinas Valley. Although FarmWise’s robots are designed for weeding, future prototypes will do much more. “Our goal is to become a universal farming platform. We want to automate pretty much all tasks from seeding all the way to harvesting,” said co-founder and CEO Sébastien Boyer. He envisioned the robots collecting volumes of data and detailed images of crops and parameters that influence their health like humidity, soil conditions, and temperature.
Using machine learning, the robots will identify each plant, determine whether it’s thriving, and tend to it accordingly. With the AI-powered robots, every broccoli stalk will get all the attention it needs to become the best broccoli. According to FarmWise, it has collaborated with farmers to understand their needs and develop its units according to their feedback.
While farming robots are a “very nascent market,” it will expand in the next decade, explained Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research. Focusing on weeding makes sense. “There are potentially billions of dollars to be saved from less pesticide use, so that’s the fashionable use case,” he added. However, the commercial success of agriculture automation startups will depend on whether their services can perform other farming tasks in various regions and climates.