In what could be an AI-power revolution in agriculture, startup FarmWise is using autonomous machines to remove weeds without the need for herbicides. Anyone who has gardened, or at least had to pull weeds, knows how time-consuming maintaining a weed-free field is. But it’s not just about saving time. If proven to be effective and scalable, this could end the need of using pollution-prone herbicides that risk both human and animal health.
The report comes to us from MIT’s news journal. The robots are named Titan. Currently, there are fifteen removing weeds from large fields in California and Arizona over the last few years. The way it works is that the rob makes use of machine vision to distinguish between weeds and crops such as artichokes, tomatoes, leafy greens, and cauliflower. The snipping is so precise, its do the sub-inch.
What also makes this interesting, is that these machines are being directed with the use of an iPad. But it’s not just about Titan, last month the newest robot, Vulcan, made its debut. More lightweight, and pulled via tractor, it promises to provide more flexibility to farmers. According to co-founder Sebastien Boyer, the goal is to use the power of AI to meet the demands of a growing population.
While speaking to MIT, he said in part, “We have a growing population, and we can’t expand the land or water we have, so we need to drastically increase the efficiency of the farming industry.” Boyer went on to also state, “I think AI and data are going to be major players in that journey.” Boyer is an MIT Alum who researched machine learning and machine vision techniques. From there began exploring ways to apply those technologies to environmental problems.
Overall, what really pushed him was a bit of funding from his alum. While working on his graduate studies, he received a small amount of funding from MIT Sandbox to further develop the idea. Recalling that time, “That helped me make the decision to not take a real job.” After graduating he teamed up with Thomas Palomares of Stanford University to found FarmWise. Meeting in France, they began touring farmers’ markets and were pleasantly surprised at how open farmers were to visitors to their operations.
During those tours, they realized a few things. Boyer stated, “We realized agriculture is a large contributor of both emissions and, more broadly, to the negative impact of human activities on the environment… It also hasn’t been as disrupted by software, cloud computing, AI, and robotics as other industries. That combination really excites us.” While conversating with their new connections in the farming community, they learned how much trouble agricultural workers were facing with weeds and the diminishing returns of modern herbicides.
This left farms with little choice other than to hire more labor, but with labor markets tight, and not expecting to loosen up, this left them with little recourse. That’s when Titan came to mind. Not as a replacement for farm workers, but as a complement to their efforts. Freeing labor in one of the most labor-tight industries on Earth. But, they’re only getting started. So far, the FarmWise team has collected over 15,000 commercial hours of data.
With more, their program will improve and even become more precise according to Boyer. “It’s all about precision…We’re going to better understand what the plant needs and make smarter decisions for each one. That will bring us to a point where we can use the same amount of land, much less water, almost no chemicals, much less fertilizer, and still produce more food than we’re producing today. That’s the mission. That’s what excites me.”
Though Titan and Vulcan have let to shake the very foundations of agriculture, those they’ve worked with so far have nothing but high praise. According to Boyer, a customer told the team that without Titan, they would have gone back to conventional methods due to the lack of available labor. “That’s happening with a lot of customers,…They have no choice but to rely on herbicides. Acres are staying organic because of our product, and conventional farms are reducing their use of herbicides.”
Clearly, AI’s impact in agriculture could not only potentially address the issue of labor supply, but also possibility make commercial agriculture more environmentally friendly.