In this episode of the Precision Farming Dealer podcast, brought to you by Ag Express, contributing editor Dan Crummett goes 1-on-1 with Carbon Robotics founder and CEO Paul Mikesell for a deep dive into the company’s LaserWeeder technology.
“We've seen the rise in herbicide resistance in the weed population,” Mikesell says. “The herbicides are getting less effective every year. They tend to knock your crops back. Every time you spray, it sets your field back a little bit. We have lots of examples of herbicide sprayed crops compared to laser weeded crops, and the laser weeded crops will come up earlier and just generally be happier.”
The LaserWeeder uses artificial intelligence and lasers to zap weeds growing among cash crops. The self-driving 80-inch wide machine has a row of high-powered CO2 lasers that are targeted and controlled by high-resolution cameras. The cameras scan the field as the machine moves, and Carbon Robotics’ computer vision system uses AI to discern if the camera Is seeing a crop or a weed.
Mikesell provides updates on the LaserWeeder technology including feedback from growers who are using it. He also explores the biggest challenges facing growers today and their willingness to use precision technology as a solution.
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Hey, thanks for tuning into another episode of the Precision Farming Dealer Podcast, brought to you by Ag Express Electronics. My name is Noah Newman. This week, contributing editor, Dan Crummett, goes one-on-one with Carbon Robotics founder and CEO, Paul Mikesell, for a deep dive into the company's LaserWeeder technology, and what it means for the future of weed control. Dan, take it away.Dan Crummett:
We're here this morning with Paul Mikesell, with Carbon Robotics. They are the maker of the LaserWeeder. And we have discussed that machine some in the press, and at least with Lessiter, in some of the publications we've done there. But Paul, if you would just kind of recap what the machine is like, what it does, and then let's get into some of the economics that this might portend for growers in the future, and some of the problems you're facing.Paul Mikesell:
Yeah, you bet. The machine, the LaserWeeder ... Well, it kind of does what it sounds like. So we use cameras and computer vision systems on computers to look at the field, in vegetable and specialty crops, and find weeds. And then we use high-powered lasers to target those weeds, and burn them out. And this technology is shipping as a pull-behind implement, that connects up to any of your tractors. It's a 20-foot wide machine. So, if you're doing 80 inches, that'll be three rows. And it's configurable for row spacing from 60 inches all the way up to 84 inches.
And the machine ... There's lots of videos of it on the internet, in Instagram and Twitter and YouTube, et cetera. And we try to put more stuff up every day. But the machines have been operating for quite some time. We've been deploying this technology for about three years now. The final production version has been shipping since earlier this year, earlier in 2022. And we're continuing to bring on new machines, and ship them primarily to US for the remainder of 2023, although we do have some machines going to Canada. And then, we'll probably start doing some international in 2024. Yeah.Dan Crummett:
The ability just to pull this with relatively small horsepower requirements makes it very handy. Is this something that can be pulled in other operations? Has a tandem function?Paul Mikesell:
Yeah. So you're saying does the machine do more than just weed control? Is that your question?Dan Crummett:
No, no. Can it be pulled behind other implements or something?Paul Mikesell:
The way that it works is that the machine pulls its power from the tractor PTO. And so we are consuming most of the horsepower of the tractor's capability when we're doing that. So it's usually a single tractor ... Tractor and machine combo, that are pretty mated together throughout the season. And the machine is meant to be easily disconnected and moved around, et cetera. But usually, people keep tractors connected to them 24/7, and are pulling these through the field ... Most of their planting season, because they've got acres to weed somewhere.
And I think ... I'm sure we've touched on this before, but the benefits of the technology are you don't need to get labor out into the field to pull weeds. You don't need to use herbicides, which are getting more expensive, and harder to come by, and less effective every year. You don't have to ... And the machine's got so much precision. We can get up within a millimeter of the plant, and so we'll kill out all of the weeds without you having to worry about trying to run a blade through it or something like that, that's going to only be partially effective.Dan Crummett:
Yeah. One just brief touch here on the economics of the machine itself. How does it compare, as far as an ROI for a machine like this, with cost savings that obviously would come from lack of herbicide purchases, and so forth?Paul Mikesell:
Yeah. We like to see a one-and-a-half to three-year ROI for farmers, and so that's our target. Some folks have shown as much as a one-year ROI, but I think it's more realistic to expect a one-and-a-half to three-year ROI. So what that means is the money you save on your weed control per season ... If you multiply that into the cost of a LaserWeeder, you find that the machine pays for itself within three years. And that's what we've been able to demonstrate, and that's our continued goal.Dan Crummett:
Well, let's talk a little bit about some of the things that are driving growers to look at this. Obviously, the cost of herbicides and the environmental ramifications and such like that. The current labor shortage. Discuss a little bit about how that can help, and maybe anecdotes and that sort of thing that you know of that would illustrate this.Paul Mikesell:
Yeah. The biggest issue for most growers today, I think, is labor, and access to labor. That seems to be the number one driving force. And so, knowing that you have a LaserWeeder that can get in there and kill the weeds, and it doesn't worry about how much wind is blowing or what ... There's no field input. So you don't have to worry about any downstream drift, or anything like that. But really, just ... It's the labor aspect that's been, I think, the number one thing that farmers are having to deal with, that the machine will obviate the need for.
And I think we all know that the labor markets are pretty bad for farming. We've got minimum wage increases, continuously. We've got changes in overtime laws, which are different every year. The challenges at the border are getting folks over that are needed for doing stuff in the field. And so the last thing I think you want to do is take your crew and put them out in the field, and have them pulling weeds. It's a real kind of waste of abilities, and sort of time. And so getting a machine out there to take care of it has been, I think ... The number one savings for folks is just not having to get labor out there.
The herbicides are ... They have all the environmental impacts that you're talking about. They're also ... We've seen the rise in herbicide resistance in the weed population. There's been a lot of studies about this, but the herbicides are getting less effective every year. They tend to knock your crops back. Every time you spray, it sets your field back a little bit. We have lots of examples of herbicide spray crops compared to laser weeded crops, and the laser weeded crops will come up earlier, and just generally be happier.
And if you're worried about your health effects, and exposure to these chemicals, and what happens downstream if ... People have a lot of issues with scheduling when they're going to spray, based on what the local environment is like. If there's a school downstream, or there's housing that you got to worry about. You need to have a buffer around your spray area, around your fields, and make sure that you can get all proper sign-offs and agreements to be able to spray in those kind of areas.
And I think having something like the LaserWeeder is nice, because you don't have to worry about any of those effects. Again, there's no field inputs. There's no crop inputs. So all we're doing is deploying heat energy to burn up weeds. So it's really that kind of balance between how much labor do I have, what's my complexity around spraying chemicals, what's it going to do to my crops? All of that stuff is really going into the decision around when and how to deploy a LaserWeeder. And I think all that stuff is kind of why we've been taking off so well. And over time, cost of technology only gets lower. Cost of labor only goes higher. So that's kind of the environment that we're walking into.Dan Crummett:
Well, you mentioned some business success there, with how you're taking off and such. Can you give us some idea of ... Maybe number of units, and where they are, currently?Paul Mikesell:
Yeah. And I'll tell you, we have-Dan Crummett:
And what you see, as far as growth?Paul Mikesell:
We have contracts for delivery from over 50 farms. We've not deployed that many, yet. We're going to do the rest of those next year. I think some of the best examples we've seen are reduction in weed control bills by 80%. That 80% number came out from a couple of different growers. And that's kind of how we got that number. And the machines are deployed in primarily West Coast, US, right now. Largely, that's based on where we've been building, and where all of our support bases are at. A lot of stuff in California, Washington, some New Mexico, Arizona. Next year, we'll be bringing on folks in Idaho, Oregon, Colorado. There's some Canada deliveries going out next year. And then we are starting to work our way into the East Coast.Dan Crummett:
What are some of the crops that are being treated this way?Paul Mikesell:
Yeah. It's all specialty and veg. So, we're focusing on things like onions, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, lettuces, leafy greens, spinaches, cucumbers, leaks, garlic. So, everything. Everything that you eat directly out of the vegetable and herb aisle in your grocery store. Those are our crops.Noah Newman:
Thanks, guys. Let's burn a quick timeout, and share a message from our sponsor, Ag Express. Dealers, farmers, and those in ag know the importance of getting the most from their efforts. Technology has been a significant game changer, when it works. When it doesn't, turn to the experts at Ag Express Electronics, who find a way by specializing in the timely repair, support, sales, and engineering of ag technology. Ag Express provides component level repairs to save time and money on costly replacements. Whether planning, harvesting chemical application, or hay baling, Ag Express has a solution for nearly any operation.
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How far a leap is it, technologically and business-wise, to get into broadacre row crops?Paul Mikesell:
The broadacre row crops are kind of ... This has not been a focus of ours. Part of it is because corn, wheat, and soy generally is processed pretty heavily before anybody gets ahold of it. The majority of the corn in this country, subsidized by the farm bill, of course ... The majority of that corn winds up going to silage for feed, or high-fructose corn syrup, corn-based ethanol, these kinds of heavily processed environments. So the value of the crops is relatively low. There's a lot of good GMO-based herbicide resistant strains, so they have selective herbicides. It's not been a great place for us to focus, really. We spend most of our time in areas where people care about the quality, nutrient content, taste, flavor, structure of what they are getting. And that's where ... What they're getting, and what they're producing. And so that's where LaserWeeder does its best.Dan Crummett:
Got it. Well, obviously you have farmer buy-in, and you have customers, and a growing list of customers. What's your feeling, or your company's feeling, about the farmer openness to this technology? And from there, what might you have coming down the pipeline, using similar technology, for other things?Paul Mikesell:
Farmers are incredibly innovative, and open to technological solutions that will help, as long as there's a good cost ROI. As long as there's a good payback period. So there's this old trope about farmers not understanding technology, and not wanting to deal with any newfangled stuff, but I haven't found that to be true at all. These folks-Dan Crummett:
It's a favorite stereotype.Paul Mikesell:
Yeah. And it doesn't make any sense. I think it comes out of ignorance and not understanding ... And whatever. But why is there ... Look at how much innovation is going on in ag tech. You can go to most of the farms that are producing the food you eat, and they're using some of the latest technology in things like computer vision. In our case, laser technology. GPS guidance, right? Self-driving tractors, all of this stuff.
Where else do you see that? In what other environment are there machines going around, doing automated work, to tackle these kinds of industrial-scale problems? So where else? I mean, I don't know. Amazon, right? Warehouses, that kind of thing. But in your daily life, you don't see that. So farmers are really dealing with some of the most advanced technology. And I think that that has happened in a way where folks just generally, who aren't part of the farming communities, did not understand it.
And it's happened quick. I think it's happened in the last 10 years, that farmers and growers have really become some of the most innovative technology deployment areas, certainly in our western economies. And I think a lot of people in the tech world didn't realize it, and don't see it coming. A lot of that's because it's geographically separated in a lot of these places. You know, you look at California. It's a good example. You've got San Francisco, LA on the West Coast. And then the East Coast ... Not even on the East Coast, but sort of in between, right? You've got Salinas, you got Fresno, you've got Central Valley, Imperial Valley, right? These are all areas that are farther away from the big city. They're quite a distance from San Francisco and LA. And those are the areas where all the press is. So I think there's been a lot missed.
We have the same scenario up here in Washington. We have Seattle on the West Coast, and then we have ... The whole east side of Washington is farming, and farm communities. But the major newspapers are primarily on the West Coast. And so I think that there's been a lot of isolation, in terms of what the press generally and ... More specifically, I should say, the tech press, the technology press, has missed this innovation that's happened in the growing communities. And I think it's time for that to change.Dan Crummett:
It will, ultimately. The technology itself. Right now, we're killing weeds. We have rapidly turning turrets that have lasers based on artificial intelligence, machine learning, if you will, that sort of thing. What other avenues are you looking at, down the road, beyond-Paul Mikesell:
Good. Oh, yeah. You know what? You had asked that as part of the second half of your last question. I forgot to address it. Apologize about that.Dan Crummett:
That's fine.Paul Mikesell:
I'll tell you ...Dan Crummett:
That's why I'm here.Paul Mikesell:
So we've been working on technology now, with the same system, for thinning. So more general ... So I'll just describe the problem here. When seed is relatively cheap, and crops have a good price at the market, which has been the situation for quite some time ... Decades. What a lot of farmers will want to do is over-plant it, over-seed the field, so that they get good stand counts, so they get good germ in all the areas where they might want to have crop, where the soil will support it and the nutrients will support it, because not all the seeds will germinate. But what that means is if you're over-seeding, it means that in certain areas, you'll have too many of those seeds germinate, too much of your crops coming up, and then will crowd each other.
So thinning is a process, in combination with over-seeding. Thinning is a process where you'll go in and kill some of those plants that are germinating, but would cause space constraints. And that has been typically done today with either hand labor or some form of herbicide spray, which has the same issues. Cost, effectiveness, drift problems. In certain areas of the country, there's limits to the amount of nitrogen inputs you can add. And these herbicides will all have some amount of that added.
So thinning with the LaserWeeder turns out to be a really good fit, because we already can tell what's happening on the ground. We already have lasers to kill vegetable matter, kill plant matter. And so we had to upgrade our computer vision a little bit to be able to detect not just the weeds, but the crops, and the configuration of the crops, and how close they are to each other, so that we can do optimal spacing through a thinning pass. So we're in the middle of-Dan Crummett:
Would this be done with the LaserWeeder itself, or another machine?Paul Mikesell:
Done with the LaserWeeder itself. So while you're going along killing weeds, you can turn on the thinning function, and we'll thin it for you. So that's in development right now. It's been tested for a little bit. We're in the middle of finishing that up.
Moving down the road a bit ... So we have images on and detections on all the weeds and all the crops in the field. And so we are working on some analytics, information, prediction software. So growers, who are customers, can log into a web portal and see the heat maps about weed density, stand count prediction, that kind of thing. So there's some information, and hopefully insight that we can pull out from that to help folks. So that's on the software side. And then, we will be continuing to experiment with other types of machinery and robotics in agriculture, generally. And there's a couple of things in the works right now that we're experimenting with.Dan Crummett:
Well, very good. I appreciate your time, and visiting with Paul Mikesell, founder and CEO of Carbon Robotics in Seattle. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.Paul Mikesell:
You bet. Nice to talk to you.Noah Newman:
Thanks, guys. And that'll wrap things up for this week's edition of the Precision Farming Dealer Podcast. Thanks to our sponsor, Ag Express Electronics for making the episode possible. Thanks to you for tuning in. And until next time, for all things Precision Farming Dealer related, head to precisionfarmingdealer.com. I'm Noah Newman. Have a great day.
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