Wed. Jan 8th, 2020

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Your Next Salad Could Be Grown by a Robot

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At first glance, the crops don’t look any different from other crops blanketing the Salinas Valley, in California, which is often called “America’s salad bowl.” All you see are rows and rows of lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower stretching to the horizon. But then the big orange robots roll through.

The machines are on a search-and-destroy mission. Their target? Weeds. Equipped with tractorlike wheels and an array of cameras and environmental sensors, they drive autonomously up and down the rows of produce, hunting for any leafy green invaders. Rather than spraying herbicides, they deploy a retractable hoe that kills the weeds swiftly and precisely.

The robots belong to FarmWise, a San Francisco startup that wants to use robotics and artificial intelligence to make agriculture more sustainable—and tastier. The company has raised US $14.5 million in a recent funding round, and in 2020 it plans to deploy its first commercial fleet of robots, with more than 10 machines serving farmers in the Salinas Valley.

FarmWise says that although its robots are currently optimized for weeding, future designs will do much more. “Our goal is to become a universal farming platform,” says cofounder and CEO ­Sébastien Boyer. “We want to automate pretty much all tasks from seeding all the way to harvesting.”

Boyer envisions the robots collecting vast amounts of data, including detailed images of the crops and parameters that affect their health such as temperature, humidity, and soil conditions. But it’s what the robots will do with the data that makes them truly remarkable. Using machine learning, they’ll identify each plant individually, determine whether it’s thriving, and tend to it accordingly. Thanks to these AI-powered robots, every broccoli stalk will get the attention it needs to be the best broccoli it can be.

Automation is not new to agriculture. Wheeled harvesters are increasingly autonomous, and farmers have long been flying drones to monitor their crops from above. Also under development are robots designed to pick fruits and vegetables—apples, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, grapes, cucumbers, asparagus. More recently, a number of robotics companies have turned their attention to ways they can improve the quality or yield of crops.

Farming robots are still a “very nascent market,” says Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research, in London, but it’s one that will “expand significantly over the next 10 years.” ABI forecasts that annual shipments of mobile robots for agriculture will exceed 100,000 units globally by 2030, 100 times the volume deployed today.

It’s still a small number compared with the millions of tractors and other farming vehicles sold each year, but Whitton notes that demand for automation will likely accelerate due to labor shortages in many parts of the world.

FarmWise says it has worked closely with farmers to understand their needs and develop its robots based on their feedback. So how do they work? Boyer is not prepared to reveal specifics about the company’s technology, but he says the machines operate in three steps.

First, the sensor array captures images and other relevant data about the crops and stores that information on both onboard computers and cloud servers. The second step is the decision-making process, in which specialized deep-learning algorithms analyze the data. There’s an algorithm trained to detect plants in an image, and the robots combine that output with GPS and other location data to precisely identify each plant. Another algorithm is trained to decide whether a plant is, say, a lettuce head or a weed. The final step is the physical action that the machines perform on the crops—for example, deploying the weeding hoe.

Boyer says the robots perform the three steps in less than a second. Indeed, the robots can drive through the fields clearing the soil at a pace that would be virtually impossible for humans to match. FarmWise says its robots have removed weeds from more than 10 million plants to date.

Whitton, the ABI analyst, says focusing on weeding as an initial application makes sense. “There are potentially billions of dollars to be saved from less pesticide use, so that’s the fashionable use case,” he says. But he adds that commercial success for agriculture automation startups will depend on whether they can expand their services to perform additional farming tasks as well as operate in a variety of regions and climates.

Already FarmWise has a growing number of competitors. Deepfield Robotics, a spin-out of the German conglomerate Robert Bosch, is testing an autonomous vehicle that kills weeds by punching them into the ground. The Australian startup Agerris is developing mobile robots for monitoring and spraying crops. And Sunnyvale, Calif.–based Blue River Technology, acquired by John Deere in 2017, is building robotic machines for weeding large field crops like cotton and soybeans.

FarmWise says it has recently completed a redesign of its robots. The new version is better suited to withstand the harsh conditions often found in the field, including mud, dust, and water. The company is now expanding its staff as it prepares to deploy its robotic fleet in California, and eventually in other parts of the United States and abroad.

Boyer is confident that farms everywhere will one day be filled with robots—and that they’ll grow some of the best broccoli you’ve ever tasted.