Your Next Salad Could Be Grown by a Robot

California startup FarmWise says robotics and machine learning will make crops tastier and healthier

4 min read
FarmWise's AI-powered robot driving autonomously through crops.

FarmWise's AI-powered robots drive autonomously through crops, looking for weeds to kill.

Photo: FarmWise

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\u2019s AI-powered robot driving autonomously through crops.FarmWise plans to deploy its first commercial fleet of robots in the Salinas Valley, in California.Photo: FarmWise

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.

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iRobot CEO Colin Angle on Data Privacy and Robots in the Home

In light of Amazon’s recent acquisition, we revisit our 7 September 2017 Q&A with iRobot’s CEO

8 min read
iRobot CEO Colin Angle.
iRobot CEO Colin Angle.
Photo: iRobot

Editor’s note: Last week, Amazon announced that it was acquiring iRobot for $1.7 billion, prompting questions about how iRobot’s camera-equipped robot vacuums will protect the data that they collect about your home. In September of 2017, we spoke with iRobot CEO Colin Angle about iRobot’s approach to data privacy, directly addressing many similar concerns. “The views expressed in the Q&A from 2017 remain true,” iRobot told us. “Over the past several years, iRobot has continued to do more to strengthen, and clearly define, its stance on privacy and security. It’s important to note that iRobot takes product security and customer privacy very seriously. We know our customers invite us into their most personal spaces—their homes—because they trust that our products will help them do more. We take that trust seriously."

The article from 7 September 2017 follows:

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New EV Prototype Leaves Range Anxiety in the Dust

Mercedes-Benz’s Vision EQXX completed a record-breaking 747-mile run in May

5 min read
a silver car driving down the road with a mountain of switchbacks behind it

The Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX

Mercedes-Benz

Not long ago, a 300-mile range seemed like a healthy target for electric cars. More recently, the 520-mile (837-kilometer) Lucid Air became the world’s longest-range EV. But that record may not stand for long.

The Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX, and its showroom-bound tech, looks to banish range anxiety for good: In April, the sleek prototype sedan completed a 621-mile (1,000-km) trek through the Alps from Mercedes’s Sindelfingen facility to the Côte d’Azur in Cassis, France, with battery juice to spare. It built on that feat in late May, when the prototype covered a world-beating, bladder-busting 747 miles (1,202 km) in a run from Germany to the Formula One circuit in Silverstone, England.

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Automating Road Maintenance With LiDAR Technology

Team from SICK’s TiM$10K Challenge creates system to automate road maintenance

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Developed by a team of students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute as part of SICK's TiM$10K Challenge, their ROADGNAR system uses LiDAR to collect detailed data on the surface of a roadway.

SICK

This is a sponsored article brought to you by SICK Inc.

From advanced manufacturing to automated vehicles, engineers are using LiDAR to change the world as we know it. For the second year, students from across the country submitted projects to SICK's annual TiM$10K Challenge.

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