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‘Ten years ago this was science fiction’: the rise of weedkilling robots
A robot made by Carbon Robotics kills weeds on farmland using lasers. Photograph: Carbon Robotics

MON, 16 AUG, 2021 – 14:16PÁDRAIG BELTON

In the corner of an Ohio field, a laser-armed robot inches through a sea of onions, zapping weeds as it goes.

This field doesn’t belong to a dystopian future but to Shay Myers, a third-generation farmer who began using two robots last year to weed his 30-acre crop. The robots – which are nearly three metres long, weigh 4,300kg and resemble a small car – clamber slowly across a field, scanning beneath them for weeds which they then target with laser bursts.

“For microseconds, you watch these reddish colour bursts. You see the weed, it lights up as the laser hits, and it’s just gone,” said Myers. “Ten years ago this was science fiction.” Other than engine sounds, the robots are almost silent and each one can destroy 100,000 weeds an hour, according to Carbon Robotics, the company that makes them.

Carbon Robotics, in common with other agri-robotic startups, emphasizes the environmental benefits these machines can bring to farming by helping to reduce soil disturbance, which can contribute to erosion, and allowing farmers to heavily reduce or even eradicate the use of herbicides.

Farmers across the globe are under increasing pressure to reduce their use of herbicides and other chemicals, which can contaminate ground and surface water, affect wildlife and non-target plants, and have been linked to increased cancer risk. At the same time, they are battling a rise in herbicide-resistant weeds, giving extra impetus to the search for new ways to kill weeds.

“Reduced herbicide usage is one of the spectacular outcomes of precision weeding,” said Gautham Das, a senior lecturer in agri-robotics at the University of Lincoln in the UK. Destroying weeds with lasers or ultraviolet light uses no chemicals at all. But even with robots that do use herbicides, their ability to precisely target weeds can reduce the use by about 90% compared with conventional blanket spraying, Das said.

Five years ago there were almost no companies specializing in farm robots, said Sébastien Boyer, the French-born head of San Francisco-based robot weeding company FarmWise, but it’s now “a booming field”.

The global market for these agricultural robots – which can also be designed to perform tasks such as seeding, harvesting and environmental monitoring – is predicted to increase from $5.4bn (€4.58bn) in 2020 to more than $20bn (€16.98bn) by 2026. “Things scale up very quickly in agriculture,” said Myers.

FarmWise found its first customers in California’s Salinas Valley, which grows lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries and is known as “America’s salad bowl”. Ten of the US’s 20 largest vegetable growers, in California and Arizona, now use the company’s robot weeders, according to Boyer. “In the beginning, they started working with us as an experiment, but now they are heavily relying on us”.

Removing pests, such as aphids, thrips and lygus bugs, is a next step for FarmWise. Robots can markedly reduce the use of fungicides and pesticides, said Boyer, by applying them more precisely, using computer vision.

As well as concerns over farming chemicals, labour shortages also play a part in robots’ advance into farmland. Farm labour can be “expensive, hard to come by and dangerous” for people involved, said Myers. 

There are still big challenges to wider-scale adoption. One problem is working in places where a battery recharge is not always readily available, which is a reason some robots – including those made by Carbon Robotics and FarmWise – use diesel for power, which itself produces harmful emissions and pollution.

Danish company FarmDroid’s machines and a herbicide-spraying robot made by Switzerland’s Ecorobotix are both solar-powered.

With batteries rapidly becoming lighter and gaining capacity, farm robots could soon be electrified, said Paul Mikesell, head of Carbon Robotics. This must be accompanied by charging infrastructure on farms, said Rose. “I don’t think we’re far away at all,” he added.

In the meantime, using fewer herbicides may be worth some diesel use, said Richard Smith, a weed science farm adviser from University of California at Davis. “In comparison to all the other tractor work that is done on intensive vegetable production fields, the amount used for the auto-weeders is a small per cent,” he said.

Another challenge is cost. These robots are still expensive, though broader adoption is likely to bring costs down. Carbon Robotics’s robot costs roughly the same as a mid-size tractor – in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

FarmWise sells robots’ weeding labour, rather than the robots themselves, charging roughly $200 (€170) an acre. Selling a weeding service instead of selling robots requires less upfront investment from farmers, said Boyer, and helped get the robotics business off the ground.

“These service models should reduce the cost barrier for most farmers, and they do not have to worry too much about the technical difficulties with these robots,” Das said.

Covid has been a problem, too, impeding access to clients, investors and semiconductors from Asia. The pandemic has “squeezed startups out of the runway”, says Andra Keay, head of the non-profit Silicon Valley Robotics.

But, beyond weeding robots, Covid has also spurred interest in how robots can shorten supply chains.

Robot-run greenhouses can use hydroponics – growing plants without soil – to produce food closer to large population centres like New York, instead of in places like California where soil is richer.

Iron Ox, a robot-powered greenhouse company based in California, has devised a robotic arm which scans each greenhouse plant and creates a 3D model of it to monitor it for disease and pests.

“Not a lot has changed in agriculture, especially in fresh produce, in the last 70 years,” said Brandon Alexander, the head of Iron Ox who grew up in a large Texas farming family. “Robotic farming offers a chance for humanity to address climate change before 2050,” he said.

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Karel Bolckmans, COO with Biobest:

“AI and robotics will bring us to the Olympic version of IPM”

“Data-driven growing is a big thing in horticulture in general. Many growers are into autonomous growing, data-driven greenhouse management, and advanced analytics. We’re convinced that this revolution will impact biological crop protection as well”, says Karel Bolckmans, COO with Biobest. “After all, if artificial intelligence (AI) can help you grow more efficiently and achieve higher yields, it will definitely render further improvement to your IPM program as well.”

“Since retailers want to offer a complete produce gamma year-round of for example greenhouse tomatoes and deal with as few suppliers as possible, we’re seeing an evolution towards rapid scale increase of greenhouse operations. Growers need to grow sufficient quantities of a complete offering twelve months per year, from cherry to beef tomato and everything in between. It results in bigger, multi-site, and international companies that can be complex to control. Data-driven growing enables you to keep track”, Karel explains.

“We also see that data-driven growing performs much better than growers themselves when it comes to optimizing plant growth. We’ll be moving to grow based on hard data, not on gut feeling.”

“The same is true for IPM. The results of biocontrol-based IPM tools are largely dependent on knowing exactly what is going on in the greenhouse. The better you know how your plants and their pests and their natural enemies are doing, the more efficient and effective you will be able to deploy your crop protection tools and the less chemical pesticides you will need to use.”

Partnerships and own development
In May last year, Biobest launched Crop-Scanner, which comprises a scouting App for recording the location, severity, and identity of pests and diseases in the crop. Clearly visualizing these data via its web-based interface through heatmaps and graphs allows the grower to have a better overview of the situation in his crop while allowing his Biobest advisor to give him the best possible technical advice. More recently, Biobest also entered into a partnership with the Canadian company Ecoation, which developed a mobile data harvesting platform that combines deep biology, computer vision and sensor technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics. “We’ve been in touch for several years now and recently decided to work together on creating IPM 3.0. Their camera’s, sensors, and autonomous vehicles allow us to collect the best possible data which serve as input for an artificial intelligence-based Decision Support System (DSS) that allows us to provide the growers with the best-in-class technical advice regarding integrated pest and disease management (IPM)”, Karel explains.  “At the same time, growers have been struggling with several severe virus outbreaks, of which ToBRFV and COVID were only a few. This has made it harder for us to frequently visit our customers in person to provide them with technical advice. But how to get accurate information from growers about the situation in the crop if you can’t visit them? Ecoation’s web-based user interface allows for remote counseling, thereby rendering frequent on-site technical visits are not necessary anymore.”

There’s more… Earlier this month, Biobest announced their investment in Arugga, Israeli developer of a robotic tomato pollinator. It might look like an alternative for the Biobest bumblebees – and actually, it is. “But our goal is not to sell the most bumblebees or beneficial insects and mites. We want to be the grower’s most reliable provider of the most effective solutions in pollination and integrated pest management in a world characterized by rapid innovation.” Although this might sound like a big change in policy for the company, Karel emphasizes that it is not at all as rash a decision as it might seem. “We’re convinced that having access to more accurate information of the status of pests, diseases and natural enemies in their crop will allow growers to develop more trust in biocontrol-based IPM and therefore reach out less fast to the pesticide bottle.”

We have done extensive research for over three years, studying the available technologies and patents. That way, we concluded that Ecoation made a wonderful match, not only in terms of technology but also when it came to vision and company culture. The same goes for Arugga. Their respective technologies support the development of the horticultural business to deal with the ever-increasing challenges of scale-increase, labor shortage, and market demand.”

The technologies Biobest now participates in go beyond IPM. The Ecoation technology for example also concerns yield prediction, high-resolution climate measurements, and controlling the quality of crop work. “Through the Ecoation technology anomalies can be detected much earlier, that way predicting and preventing outbreaks of pests and diseases. Non-stop measuring everywhere is our ideal. This way we will learn more about the effect of climate on the plant and, more importantly, the effects of the crop protection measures.”

Karel notices an increasing interest of growers in this kind of technology. “There is an increasing market demand for residue-free fruits and vegetables. That’s the direction we’re heading to. Our aim is to help growers do this in the best way possible: with the support of robotics and AI.”

Data collection will convince more growers
He is convinced that the data that can be collected will convince more growers to start using the Ecoation and Arugga technologies. “We see now that pioneers in North America are highly interested and are currently successfully trialing these technologies. But it’s more than that: what we sell, is a production increase because of less plant stress from pests and diseases. Moreover, every single pesticide treatment causes plant stress and therefore negatively influences crop yield. This is very well known among experienced growers. ”

He remembers when a couple of decades ago, they saw the same when growers started switching from chemical crop protection to IPM. “I vividly remember 2006-2007 in Spain when many growers made the switch to biological control. They didn’t want to, they were forced by the retailers after the publication of a report on pesticide residues on Spanish produce by Greenpeace Germany. But at the end of that year, everybody was picking more and better peppers. In Kenya and elsewhere, rose growers who switch to biocontrol-based IPM pick more flowers, with a long stem and a better vase life. However, stories like this have never been scientifically quantified and published but are very well known to everyone in the industry. With our technologies, we will be able to immediately and continuously measure the exact effects of IPM on crop yield. Less work, more objective data. That means harvesting more kilos with less effort. AI and robotics will bring us to the Olympic version of IPM.”For more information:Biobestinfo@biobestgroup.comwww.biobestgroup.com

Publication date: Fri 25 Jun 2021
Author: Arlette Sijmonsma
© HortiDaily.com

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