San Francisco-based startup FarmWise has started production of its first generation of autonomous weeding robots after successful tests in 2018 and has already secured bookings for 2019.
The company says the robot can help farmers reduce their reliance on chemical weedkillers. (See video below.)
FarmWise says that farmers today are facing the need to use fewer chemical inputs to match current consumer expectations and preserve the integrity of our soil.
Meanwhile, herbicide resistance has become a cause for concern which often leaves growers with few options for weed management other than applying additional chemicals or using hand hoeing.
On the other side of the spectrum, the recruiting of farm labor, especially on-field workers, represents one of the largest pain points to farmers.
According to a survey by the California Farm Bureau, 7 out of 10 farmers hiring seasonal workers report labor shortage in California.
While availability sinks, labor cost skyrockets. In California, regulation regarding minimum wage increase, overtime payment, health and retirement benefit coverage are increasingly weighing on the fragile farm profitability.
To help growers address these issues, FarmWise has built an autonomous machine for weed control management.
FarmWise’s robots use a perception system powered by deep learning to capture and analyze plant images in real-time through the latest and finest available embedded computers.
Once the images are processed, the machines know where the weeds are and mechanically act on each plant: removing weeds around them if encountered without using a single drop of herbicide.
Designed by a team of hardware engineers and machine learning experts from the ground-up, FarmWise’s robots have been conceived to farm a large variety of crops.
Dennis Donohue, former Mayor of Salinas, California, and director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, which hosted FarmWise as a startup in residence in 2017, says: “FarmWise’s choice to leverage Al algorithms and adapt them to the farming industry is making it possible for one machine to work on most of the growers’ fields from lettuce to carrots, broccoli and so on, a possibility never seen before since the invention of the tractor in the first half of the 20th century.”
To help bring the autonomy to its full potential, each robot is monitored by a unique collaboration between an on-field human operator and a teleoperation service from a technical center.
By early 2019, FarmWise plans to reach a higher level of autonomy where one person will be able to manage more machines.
FarmWise is also announcing today that production of the next generation of machines is about to start and is being carried out by a large automotive manufacturer based out of Detroit, Michigan.
Sebastien Boyer, co-founder and CEO of FarmWise, says: “We’re building a unique team of passionate people at the crossroads of farming, robotics and artificial intelligence.
“Since 2016 we have acquired very specific knowledge in the area of collaborative intelligent agricultural machines which allows us to build technologies general to various farming tasks.”
Boyer was recently named both on the 30 Under 30 list by Forbes and among the 35 Innovators Under 35 list by MIT Technology Review.
Thanks to a strong relationship with the Western Growers Association, the company was able to successfully conduct trials this year in the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria region. FarmWise is currently deploying two machines on lettuce and cauliflower fields on a weekly basis.
Although the company is currently focused on large vegetable growers in California, in the longer run it aims at servicing medium and smaller farms as well as commodity producers across the country and overseas.
By offering an alternative to chemical herbicides and labor, two resources under threat, FarmWise is empowering farmers to face their current societal, environmental and financial challenges.
In the long run, the machine will improve the efficiency of farm processes and, as a result, generate more operating profits for growers, says FarmWise.