This Startup Is Building Giant Robots to Grow Our Food

FarmWise is using AI and robotics to enhance farming efficiency by taking care of each plant individually

2 min read
FarmWise robot
FarmWise's robots use computer vision and machine learning to provide "personalized care" to every plant they touch.
Photo: FarmWise

We humans spend most of our time getting hungry or eating, which must be really inconvenient for the people who have to produce food for everyone. For a sustainable and tasty future, we’ll need to make the most of what we’ve got by growing more food with less effort, and that’s where the robots can help us out a little bit.

FarmWise, a California-based startup, is looking to enhance farming efficiency by automating everything from seeding to harvesting, starting with the worst task of all: weeding. And they’ve just raised US $14.5 million to do it.

FarmWise’s autonomous, AI-enabled robots are designed to solve farmers’ most pressing challenges by performing a variety of farming functions - starting with weeding, and providing personalized care to every plant they touch. Using machine learning models, computer vision and high-precision mechanical tools, FarmWise’s sophisticated robots cleanly pick weeds from fields, leaving crops with the best opportunity to thrive while eliminating harmful chemical inputs. To date, FarmWise’s robots have efficiently removed weeds from more than 10 million plants.

FarmWise is not the first company to work on large mobile farming robots. A few years ago, we wrote about DeepField Robotics and their giant weed-punching robot. But considering how many humans there are, and how often we tend to get hungry, it certainly seems like there’s plenty of opportunity to go around.

FarmWise robot FarmWise is collecting massive amounts of data about every single plant in an entire field, which is something that hasn’t been possible before. Above, one of the robots at a farm in Salinas Valley, Calif. Photo: FarmWise

Weeding is just one thing that farm robots are able to do. FarmWise is collecting massive amounts of data about every single plant in an entire field, practically on the per-leaf level, which is something that hasn’t been possible before. Data like this could be used for all sorts of things, but generally, the long-term hope is that robots could tend to every single plant individually—weeding them, fertilizing them, telling them what good plants they are, and then mercilessly yanking them out of the ground at absolute peak ripeness. It’s not realistic to do this with human labor, but it’s the sort of data-intensive and monotonous task that robots could be ideal for. 

The question with robots like this is not necessarily whether they can do the job that they were created for, because generally, they can—farms are structured enough environments that they lend themselves to autonomous robots, and the tasks are relatively well defined. The issue right now, I think, is whether robots are really time- and cost-effective for farmers. Capable robots are an expensive investment, and even if there is a shortage of human labor, will robots perform well enough to convince farmers to adopt the technology? That’s a solid maybe, and here’s hoping that FarmWise can figure out how to make it work.

[ FarmWise ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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