‘Ten years ago this was science fiction’: the rise of weedkilling robots

24th August, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 

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In the corner of an Ohio field, a laser-armed robot inches through a sea of onions, zapping weeds because it goes.

This field doesn’t belong to a dystopian future but to Shay Myers, a third-generation farmer whose TikTok posts about farming life often go viral.

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He began using two robots last year to weed his 12-hectare (30-acre) crop. The robots – which are nearly three metres long, weigh 4,300kg (9,500lb), and resemble alittle car – clamber slowly across a field, scanning beneath them for weeds which they then target with laser bursts.

“For microseconds you watch these reddish color bursts. You see the weed, it lights up as the laser hits, and it’s just gone,” said Myers. “Ten years ago this was science fiction.” aside from engine sounds, the robots are almost silent and every one can destroy 100,000 weeds an hour, per Carbon Robotics, the corporate that produces them.

Carbon Robotics, in common with other agri-robotic startups, emphasizes the environmental benefits these machines can bring round farming by helping to cut back soil disturbance, which might contribute to erosion, and allowing farmers to heavily reduce or maybe eradicate the utilization of herbicides.

Farmers are under increasing pressure to scale back their use of herbicides and other chemicals, which may contaminate ground and surface water, affect wildlife and non-target plants, and are linked to increased cancer risk. At the identical time, they’re battling an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds, giving extra impetus to the look for new ways to kill weeds.

“Reduced herbicide usage is one of the spectacular outcomes of precision weeding,” said Gautham Das, a senior lecturer in agri-robotics at the University of Lincoln. Destroying weeds with lasers or ultraviolet uses no chemicals in the least. But even with robots that do use herbicides, their ability to exactly target weeds can reduce the utilization about 90% compared with conventional blanket spraying, Das said.

Five years ago there have been almost no companies specializing in farm robots, said Sébastien Boyer, the French-born head of San Francisco-based robot weeding company FarmWise, but it’s now “a booming field”.

The global marketplace for these agricultural robots – which may even be designed to perform tasks like seeding, harvesting and environmental monitoring – is predicted to extend from $5.4bn in 2020 to quite $20bn by 2026. “hings scale up very quickly in agriculture,” said Myers.

They’re not just the preserve of larger farms, said Elizabeth Sklar, an engineering professor at King’s College London, “some of the smaller farms are able to be more flexible with trying out new approaches”.

FarmWise found its first customers in California’s Salinas Valley, which grows lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries and is thought as “America’s salad bowl”. Ten of the US’s 20 largest vegetable growers, in California and Arizona, now use the company’s robot weeders, consistent with Boyer. “In the beginning, they started working with us as an experiment, but now they are heavily relying on us”.

Removing pests, like aphids, thrips and lygus bugs, could be a next step for FarmWise. Robots can markedly reduce the employment of fungicides and pesticides, said Boyer, by applying them more precisely, using computer vision.

As well as concerns over farming chemicals, labor shortages also play a component in robots’ advance into farmland. Farm labour will be “expensive, hard to come back by and dangerous” for people involved, said Myers. during a viral TikTok video in April he said he couldn’t hire workers to choose his asparagus crop because the govt had not granted him visas in time.

There are still big challenges to wider-scale adoption. One problem is functioning in places where A battery recharge isn’t always readily available, which could be a reason some robots – including those made by Carbon Robotics and FarmWise – use diesel for power, which itself produces harmful emissions and pollution.

The robot farmers of the longer term “have got to be different than the machines we’ve created in the past. You don’t want big, fossil fuel-guzzling machines; you want smaller, renewable energy-using machines,” said David Rose, professor of agricultural innovation at the University of Reading within the UK.

Some robots are already powered by renewable energy. UK-based Small Robot Company’s spider-shaped weeding robot is powered by Tesla batteries. Danish company FarmDroid’s machines and a herbicide-spraying robot made by Switzerland’s Ecorobotix are both solar powered.

With batteries rapidly becoming lighter and gaining capacity, farm robots could soon be electrified, said Paul Mikesell, head of Carbon Robotics. This must be among charging infrastructure on farms, said Rose. “I don’t think we’re isolated in any respect,” he added.

In the meantime, using fewer herbicides is also worth some diesel use, said Richard Smith, a weed science farm adviser from University of California at Davis. “In comparison to all the other tractor work that is done on intensive vegetable production fields, the amount used for the auto-weeders is a small percent,,” he said.

Another challenge is cost. These robots are still expensive, though broader adoption is probably going to bring costs down. Carbon Robotics’s robot costs roughly the identical as a mid-size tractor – within the many thousands of dollars (it won’t confirm exact costs) – though the corporate says it’s also exploring leasing possibilities.

FarmWise sells robots’ weeding labor, instead of the robots themselves, charging roughly $200 an acre. Selling a weeding service rather than selling robots requires less upfront investment from farmers, said Boyer, and helped get the robotics business off the bottom.

“These service models should reduce the cost barrier for most farmers, and they do not have to worry too much about the technical difficulties with these robots,” Das said.

Covid has been a controversy, too, impeding access to clients, investors and semiconductors from Asia. The pandemic has “squeezed startups out of the runway”, says Andra Keay, head of the non-profit Silicon Valley Robotics.

But, beyond weeding robots, Covid has also spurred interest in how robots can shorten supply chains.

Robot-run greenhouses can use hydroponics – growing plants without soil – to provide food closer to large population centres like big apple, rather than in places like California where soil is richer.

Iron Ox, a robot-powered greenhouse company based in California, has devised a robotic arm which scans each greenhouse plant and creates a 3D model of it to observe it for disease and pests. It operates two robotic greenhouses now selling produce to shops within the Bay Area, and just broke ground on a 3rd in Texas.

“Not a lot has changed in agriculture, especially in fresh produce, in the last 70 years,” said Brandon Alexander, the pinnacle of Iron Ox who grew up in a very large Texas farming family. “Robotic farming offers an opportunity for humanity to handle temperature change before 2050,” he said.