Replacing Herbicides With Robots

Weeding–especially in a large farm–is a long, boring, and thankless task, which is why it’s easier to turn to chemicals as an easy solution. But you know who doesn’t mind long, boring, and thankless tasks? Robots.

Weed picking is such an exasperating task that it could make even the dedicated organic farmer want to douse the place in herbicides. But as farms become ever more automated, it’s not surprising that enterprising engineers have found a possible solution to the weed-picking problem: a robot.


Blue River Technology announced this week that it raised $3.1 million in a Series A funding led by Khosla Ventures to commercialize its robot alternative to toxic pesticides. The prototype weed-pulling robot uses computer vision technology to pick out weeds in a field and eliminate them, without harming surrounding plants.

Blue River started with a tractor-mounted prototype last year before moving on to the current version of the lettuce bot, which uses algorithms to detect and differentiate between plants sitting next to each other, even when they’re touching. Once it hunts down a weed, the bot injects enough fertilizer to kill it–no need for toxic pesticides to enter the picture.

“With the global population expected to increase to 9.5 billion by 2050, increasing food production in a sustainable way is going to be one of the great challenges of this century,” said Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, in a statement. “Blue River Technology’s solution will not only be more cost effective than current solutions, but has the potential to reduce U.S. herbicide use by over 250 million pounds a year.”

The weed-killing robot is already being tested out in California’s Salinas Valley, but right now it’s limited to lettuce. Blue River will have to come up with new algorithms for different crops–so you can rest easy that weed-killing robots won’t turn on their human owners and attempt to inject them with fertilizer. With weeds becoming increasingly resistant to certain pesticides, we suspect that Blue River will have plenty of support from organic and non-organic farmers alike.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.