On a farm in Santa Maria, California, a large orange robot carefully drives down rows of cauliflower automatically identifying weeds. Then it pulls them out.
“We offer farmers a way to kill the weeds in the field using absolutely no chemicals,” says Sébastien Boyer, cofounder & CEO of FarmWise, the Silicon Valley startup that designed the robot. It’s a way to solve a growing problem: Farmers spend billions on herbicides that can wash off fields to contaminate water and potentially impact health. (Glyphosate, now the most heavily used agricultural chemical—common on crops like corn and soy—was recognized as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015, and though the U.S. EPA has said otherwise, it’s recently been the subject of massive judgements in court). The use of herbicides is projected to increase as food production swells with the global population.
The FarmWise robot uses artificial vision to navigate through fields, then analyzes plants to determine which are weeds and which should stay in the ground. “The most challenging part was to build a system that’s both accurate enough, but more importantly general enough, for the intrinsic variability that you see on the farm,” says Boyer. The robot has to be able to recognize plants at various stages of growth and different crops. “We basically had to leverage those recent advances in computation algorithms—algorithms similar to what Facebook and Google are using to recognize us in our pictures—to reach that level of consistency and repeatability across many different fields.” When the machine recognizes a weed, it uses a hoe-like attachment to automatically remove it.
For farmers, it’s a way to respond to consumer demand for crops grown with fewer chemicals. In some countries, new regulations are also beginning to restrict some herbicide use. But the robot can also save farmers money. “The longer-term cost of using our solution is actually much less than needing to rely on chemical products,” Boyer says. The company uses a service model, meaning that farmers don’t buy the machines. Instead, the company delivers the machine and removes weeds, charging a fee per acre, and the ultimate cost is less than it would cost to spray the field.
FarmWise has deployed two robots so far, working on crops like lettuce, cabbage, and cauliflower. This summer, it will begin to also work on celery and cotton fields. “With the same machine, we’re dispatching it in different types of fields and basically focusing on what our customers grow the most,” he says. Roush, an automotive developer, is building several additional machines this year. FarmWise is working on plans to scale up the number of machines it operates. It will also eventually expand the services that the robots can provide, since the robots make it possible to gather detailed data about every field. “We’re actually building technologies that are general to basically any tasks that you want to perform at the plant level,” he says.