Carbon Robotics is one of the most interesting new companies to come on the agricultural scene in recent years. Instead of a goal of “reducing” the use of herbicides, their goal is the elimination. To that end, they invented a machine that “zaps” (with a red hot laser) weeds.
Yes, weeds. And, somehow through their awesome software application and database of plants, it kills ONLY weeds, leaving the crops intact. This is even better than human weeding, in that when a farmer hand-weeds his crops, there will invariably be damage to the crops when their competition is pulled out. There is very little that can be done to prevent this, save NOT weeding at all, or using herbicides.
But even herbicides can be damaging to the very crops they seek to protect from invading weeds, and chemical use and overuse is very damaging to soils, beneficial insects, fungi, and more. Sustainable agriculture must take into account these factors, as a living, thriving ecosystem is very beneficial to plants, and an ecosystem that has been destroyed by the use of pesticides and herbicides, is not beneficial. Not only does it harm the crops, it harms the environment in ways that humans have only begun to understand.
According to Paul Stamets, a mycologist and medical researcher, who has been involved in using mushrooms to heal the planet (including the human-induced damage thereto), “The loss of biodiversity is untangling the web of nature, and as these species and connections are lost, we unravel the protective influence that healthy habitats afford the commons.”
This loss of biodiversity is being caused, probably in the greatest part, by humans. Human impacts on biodiversity, the food chain, insect life, and more, have yet to be uncovered. See our previous article for more details. Paul Stamets holds a patent on SMART pesticides, which are pesticides created by mushrooms that are highly effective at controlling over 200,000 species of insects. This would help farming become sustainable on the pesticide side of the equation.
Staten Islander had the opportunity to ask questions of Carbon Robotics, a company that specializes in killing weeds without killing plants, paving the way to a sustainable farming future.
From their About Us page, “Carbon Robotics is pioneering the next revolution in agriculture through the deployment of innovative technology and hardware. Carbon Robotics’ first product, the Autonomous Weeder, is purpose built to tackle one of the industry’s biggest problems: weed control. By leveraging artificial intelligence and laser technology, Carbon Robotics’ revolutionary, high-precision approach improves crop yield, provides safer working conditions for farmers, reduces overall costs associated with modern farming, and creates sustainable paths to regenerative and organic produce. Carbon Robotics was founded in 2018 and is based in Seattle.”
This company sold out of their autonomous weeders last year, and they may be on their way to doing so again.
The following are the questions and answers from Carbon Robotics about their technology.
1) What is the energy source for the autonomous weeder that allows it to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Is it solar powered, or is there a different power source that it has? If it is solar powered, how does it run on cloudy days?
- The Autonomous Weeder currently runs on diesel. Carbon Robotics designed the Autonomous Weeder to easily integrate into the existing infrastructure on farms. Currently, many tools and equipment run on diesel.
- Eventually, Carbon Robotics would like to explore alternative sources of fuel/energy to run the robot, but that will be longer term.
- Solar power and electric are very interesting options, but farmers need their equipment for most of the day and current battery technology means that the robot would need to charge for extended periods of time before being ready to use.
- Carbon Robotics is committed to providing sustainable technology to farmers and will continue to innovate to offer tools and machines that enable efficient, sustainable and cost-effective solutions.
2) How does the camera differentiate between weeds and crops? Does it contain a database of EVERY single possible weed, or are there a few that might be missed?
- The robot uses computer vision to identify and target weeds and differentiate weeds between crops.
- The technology is similar to that used in Facebook. When you upload a picture to Facebook, it asks you if your brother or cousin or friend is in the picture. The same technology is used here. Carbon Robotics trains the neural net by showing it images of crops and weeds. Once it has seen about 100 images, it can clearly differentiate between the crop in the field and the weeds present.
- The robot is trained based on the crop field it will be working in and the location of the field. For example, there are different weeds commonly found in New Mexico vs. eastern Washington and spinach crops look different than onions. Location and crop type are how
- Carbon Robotics determines what images to show to train the robot. Currently, the robot can identify about a dozen different types of crops and is continuing to learn.
3) What is the accuracy of the camera and Nvidia technology?
- The software created by Carbon Robotics and the datasets the company has created to train the robots enable precise laser targeting. The technology is so accurate, the robot can target weeds in between crops. This is incredibly helpful because current weeding methods often disrupt crop growth. For example, if herbicides are sprayed, they will get on the weeds and crops, impacting a crop’s growth. If farmers take the approach of tilling or hand weeding, uprooting weeds can impact the root system of the crop as well as disrupt the soil microbiology, all impacting the plant’s ability to grow.
4) What are the benefits to farmers in terms of sustainability for your product? How many man-hours of labor and gallons of herbicide does it approximately save an average sized farm per year?
- There are many benefits to leveraging the Autonomous Weeder, including the reduction or elimination of herbicides, no disruption to the soil and its microbiology, increase to crop yield and an economical path to organic and regenerative farming.
- The key sustainability benefits are the reduction or elimination of herbicides and no disruption to the soil.
- Soil health is critical to farmers and not only enables them to produce healthy crops, but it’s also important for the longevity of the fields. The Autonomous Weeder eliminates the use of chemicals found in herbicides, which damages soil health (and high-levels of exposure are dangerous to workers and farmers). Additionally, by offering a method of weeding that doesn’t disrupt the soil’s top level, the microbiology in the soil (crucial for healthy crops) is left undisturbed.
5) Are there improvements to the technology that we can look forward to in the future?
- The Carbon Robotics team is constantly looking for ways to innovate and create new tools for farmers to leverage. The team spends a lot of time in the fields with farmers and is listening to their pain points, challenges and feedback to apply to the products in development.
6) Anything else you would like to add for our readers?
- Farmers are some of the most innovative business owners around. They are creative, skilled and resourceful. Many people don’t understand the work that goes into growing food. Farmers work incredibly hard to provide quality food and Carbon Robotics is eager to offer more tools that allow them to improve the quality of their crop yield and protect their fields and workers by removing harmful chemicals.
- Additionally, the team is excited to automate a task that is incredibly grueling, tedious and challenging to find workers to execute. Not many people realize that the farming industry is facing a labor shortage, so farmers are in dire need of ways to automate critical tasks, such as weeding.
7) Can you provide a testimonial from a farmer who is using your products that would be willing to talk with us, either via email or Skype, about your product?
- You can watch this video with James Johnson from Carzalia Valley Produce.
8) Were you excited when your product sold out for the season? Does this give you inspiration to know that there are so many farmers out there who want to change over to a more sustainable, lower chemical intensive form of agriculture?
- The Carbon Robotics team is very excited with the reaction to the Autonomous Weeder. The company recently secured $27 million in Series B funding, and this will go to growing and scaling the production of the Autonomous Weeder as well as expanding the sales and support teams locally.
- Carbon Robotics is eager to continue to work closely with farmers to understand their most challenging problems and develop innovative ways to apply technology to provide farmers with sustainable and effective tools.
All Images Courtesy of Carbon Robotics