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SYFY WIRE Robotics

This high-tech farm is managed by a team of pesticide-disavowing robots

By Adam Pockross
Greenfield Robotics robot farmer

Old Clint Brauer had a farm, as the song goes, and on that farm and its 5,500 square feet of vegetable-growing greenhouses, there was a fleet of 10 robot farm hands … with a (insert R2-D2 sound) here, and a (insert BB-8 sound) here, here a … okay, you get it.

Point being: We’re not dealing with Old McDonald’s farm anymore, folks.  

Brauer is the owner of not just the working, family farm, but also the co-founder of Greenfield Robotics, which welcomes folks to its very 21st century website with the following: “Healthy Food, Healthy Planet / Farming made regenerative. Chemical-free. Carbon captured.”

To help achieve such soil- and planet-friendly aims at scale, the company has set up Brauer’s family farm as its R&D homebase, while utilizing and developing a team of 10 robotic, battery-operated, 140-pound farm hands. If everything goes according to the company’s Big-Thinking plan, these little weed killers could help turn pesticides into a thing of the past.

Weeds and farming just don’t mix. To combat the problem in a planet-safe way, Brauer was initially drawn to the idea of no-till farming, a practice currently gaining popularity that avoids disturbing soil to kill weeds by forgoing practices like plowing and cultivation. But no-till comes with a price, a greater reliance on pesticides. While soil-health may be improved, the trade-off in chemical use is just differently bad.

After a particularly difficult battle with pigweed, Brauer discovered he could combat the annoying weed with constant mowing. And who would make a good constant mower, that was small enough to fit between rows and light enough to work muddy fields? A robot!

So he called up his friend Steven Gentner, founder of machine vision software company, RoboRealm. “His exact words, ‘I get pitched stupid ideas all the time that aren’t going to work for a long time. This one is doable,’” Brauer tells OneZero.

So they got to work. The first version was just a remote-controlled mower that you had to walk behind. The second version added machine vision, which meant the operator didn’t have to be out in the field along with the bot. Now according to OneZero, they’ve “added the final ‘full automatic with onboard computing’ component combined with out-of-the-field computer monitoring.”

Now, each “broadleaf weeding bot” can sense depth and use machine vision to “see” planted rows in the distance, to navigate the field and make sure they’re cutting where they’re supposed to be. Granted, an operator still has to keep an eye on unforeseen trappings, such as gaping gopher holes, but hey, at least that person doesn’t have to be in a hot field, pulling weeds all day.  

Genter says that robotics is “booming” in the agriculture industry at the moment. With Greenfield into year three of its venture, they’ve got several farms signed up for “beta test” field trials this growing season. And they’re keeping the prices equal to or less than what those farms were previously paying for weed control. And they’re not not done yet, with the company seeking $8 million in funding this fall, a second-gen robot model in the designing stage, and a pesticide-dependent industry still very much left to revolutionize.  

(via OneZero)