When vegetable farmer Shay Myers has to catch 30 acres of organic onions, he usually hires a staff of about 30 for a day’s work, which can be tedious, including sometimes using pocket knives to carve weeds around onions. He hopes to use two robots this season.
Myers is an early user of a Seattle-based robotic weed company, a tractor truck that uses lasers to kill weeds.
At first glance, the machine’s field was “like science fiction,” said Myers, who grows hundreds of acres of onions, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables in Idaho, Oregon. He expects the cars to “pay for themselves in two or three years.”
Seattle-based Carbon Robotics this week unveiled the latest replica of its nine-foot-long robot, designed to weed field crops to replace human labor or pesticides. With 12 cameras and eight lasers, the machine silences unwanted plants for up to 5 miles per hour.
Several farmers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have ordered and received the robots, says Paul Mikesel, CEO of Carbon Robotics. He said farmers in California and New Mexico also placed orders.
Automation has become a growing presence as farmers across the country face a continuing labor shortage driven by US immigration policy and other factors.
Over the next decade, the Western Producers Association aims to automate half of the specialized crop harvest, which includes fruits, vegetables and nuts. A Florida company is developing a strawberry picking robot. Scientists in three cities of Washington State University are working on an apple-picking robot. The idea that some farmers’ advocates met with skepticism.
Myers said it has become more difficult to hire people to harvest grass. This year, 80% of the migrant workers he planned to hire on temporary H-2A visas are delayed at the US-Mexico border.
“It’s harder to find people who do that job every year,” he said.
Mikesell declined to give the exact cost of the robot, but said it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, comparable to some tractors.
The Mukilteo weed robot uses GPS technology to stay in the geofence at the edge of the field. Under the robot, cameras scan the soil, and artificial intelligence identifies weeds in the crop.
Then the carbon dioxide laser (the same as cutting metal) “targets weeds for destruction,” according to the company’s website. The company says that the machine can remove 15-20 acres of weeds per day.
The design of the machine meant malfunctions so that the laser and the robot could withstand hot, freezing temperatures, such as rain, dust and lightning, to meet the “general roughness of agricultural equipment,” Mikesel said.
Mikesell founded the robotics startup after founding the Isilon data storage company, then worked at Uber as Director of Infrastructure Engineering. Carbon Robotics raised $ 8.9 million, Mikesel said.
For better or worse, the robot will not be available in your backyard soon.
“That’s not the way out,” Mikesel said. Even at the current level of the company, he said, “we have more demands on cars than we can meet.”