The nutrient content of our vegetables is down 40% over the last two decades and our soil health is suffering due to increasingly harsh herbicide use, according to Carbon Robotics founder Paul Mikesell. And farmers are increasingly concerned about the long-term health impacts of continually spraying chemicals on their fields.
But not weeding will cost half your crop, killing profitability.
A self-driving farm robot that kills 100,000 weeds an hour … by laser.
“We wanted [to] figure out if there’s a better way we could do this.” Mikesell told me on a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “What we discovered relatively early on is that through the use of high-powered energy systems — so, lasers, which is essentially a way of delivering targeted energy — we can kill these weeds. And we can do it with the use of our computer vision and deep learning expertise … which allows us to in real time identify what’s a weed, what’s a crop … and kill the weeds. Get rid of them.”
Poor food quality is a significant problem.
Clearly poor farmer health is as well.
But poor soil health is a potentially existential problem: without the ability to produce food, even a rich, modern, technological society will crash.
The American Society for Horticultural Science says that evidence points “toward declines of some nutrients in fruits and vegetables available in the United States and the United Kingdom,” and Scientific American says that “crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today.”
A key reason?
Weeds are getting harder to kill as herbicide-resistant varieties survive, forcing herbicide manufacturers to reformulate ever-more-potent chemicals. That has potential impacts on farmer health — rumors of chemicals like glyphosate contributing to cancer and paraquat leading to Parkinson’s — and it has serious impacts on soil health.
“What happens to the land over time, where we wind up stripping out a lot of the essential micro bacteria that’s down there in the ground, we’re changing the way that things are composting in the ground and it’s causing a bunch of longer term issues with soil health,” says Mikesell.
Besides human labor, which is not scalable, herbicides are pretty much the only answer.
Until Carbon Robotics’ autonomous Laserweeder.
The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second. They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.
It drives 5 miles/hour and can clear 15-20 acres in a day.
“It’s able to say … ‘this is a spinach,’ which is a crop that somebody might grow, and ‘this is a purslane,’ which is a weed that somebody may want to kill,” Mikesell told me. “It’s important for us to be able to know weeds and crops because these farmers do rotations. So you might do carrots … so your field is full of carrots. You grow the carrots, harvest them, send them to market, hopefully make a nice profit. And then, after that you plant onions. So in the first scenario, the carrots were the crop and everything that’s not a carrot you want to kill. In the second scenario, the carrots are now weeds. If there’s any leftover carrots you want to kill them and protect the onions. And so our machines know what it’s actually looking at and can say, ‘Okay, it’s onion time, let’s kill the carrots.’”
While the machine is self-driving in a field, it’ll require human intervention to move between fields or do anything really complicated, since Carbon Robotics is erring on the side of safety. Farmers can set a geofence with GPS coordinates beyond which the machine won’t travel.
It also works all night long, with high-powered lights that illuminate the crop bed so the cameras can see the plants clearly and the computer systems can identify them.
How’s it working?
“It’s very effective,” says Mikesell. “We’ve done this through several seasons now. The farmers are elated and we’ve been able to save them a lot of money on their weed bills.”
Carbon Robotics is just coming out of the prototype phase and into a commercialization phase now. The company has raised a $27 million series B investment, which will be invested into growing sales, support, engineering, and kicking off a marketing machine.
Most sales to date have been via word of mouth, Mikesell says.
As with all new technology, the ultimate proof will be a few years coming as farmers increasingly adopt this kind of technology and torture test it. Herbicide is expensive, so there’s an economic incentive to find new ways of week control in addition to the health and safety reasons.
But a solution for weed control that doesn’t involve putting herbicide — literally poison for at least some kinds of plants — has to be a positive.
According to Mikesell, it’s just the beginning.
Future farms will be much more automated, he says.
“One of the great things about farmers is they’re super innovative. And so if you sit down with somebody and talk about, well, what kind of things are giving you a problem? What kind of things do you think could be automated? You’ll get hours of conversation. And some of those things are going to start bearing fruit in the relatively near future, and so we have a number of things that we will start working on. And five years from now, I hope to be able to automate as much of farming as folks want us to do, and as much as we can get in there and really be helpful at.”