We’ve heard a lot about autonomous cars over the past few years, but there are other applications for self-driving technology, including agriculture.
Silicon Valley startup FarmWise this week announced a new partnership with Livonia, MI-based Roush, a legacy manufacturer and engineering services firm, to develop and test an autonomous machine that weeds row crops. FarmWise co-founder and chief technology officer Thomas Palomares declined to disclose the monetary value of the partnership.
FarmWise was founded in 2016 to create adaptable, robotic machinery that can help farmers improve productivity, crop health, and yields—thereby making agriculture more efficient and profitable. Also important to FarmWise is leveraging artificial intelligence technology to reduce the amount of herbicides and weed-killing chemicals farmers use.
“One of our main issues is removing reliance on herbicides, which are mostly used in the weeding process,” Palomares explains. “Our autonomous machine can precisely identify and remove weeds through machine learning, providing a chemical-free alternative in the process.”
A growing number of companies are pursuing robotic technologies for use on farms. Two years ago, Deere & Company (NYSE: DE) paid $305 million to acquire Sunnyvale, CA-based robotics startup Blue River Technology. Using computer vision and machine learning, Blue River’s robots spray only weeds, reducing the amount of chemicals applied to fields. Others are also pouring dollars into ag robot research. According to research from online investment marketplace AgFunder, robotics, mechanization and other farm equipment accounted for $368 million in investment in 2018, up 56 percent compared to 2017.
Palomares says the search for a testing and development partner took the company to all corners of the globe. FarmWise was seeking a manufacturer able to produce high-end, sensor-laden machines in low-volume quantities. Roush, with its roots in race cars, was a good match.
“We really needed strong expertise in recent robotics,” he adds, saying that Michigan firms, which have backgrounds in autonomous vehicle work for the defense industry and companies like Waymo, are a good fit to manufacture self-driving vegetable weeders. FarmWise, with roughly 20 employees, plans to develop a dozen autonomous machines with Roush.
Some modern crops—corn, for example—are difficult to grow without chemicals. The vast majority of these seeds have been genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides like Roundup, meaning farmers can blanket their crops with chemicals that will kill everything except for the corn. Palomares says it’s a very efficient, yet potentially toxic, approach.
“There’s no real economically feasible solution,” he maintains. “That’s why we’re starting with machines that weed, because it’s where we’ll have a stronger impact.”
In the future, FarmWise would like to expand its artificial intelligence platform to automate other agricultural tasks, such as watering fields and harvesting crops. “We’re working to bring farming together with data on individual crops” to enable machines that operate very precisely, Palomares adds.