Despite all the talk about autonomous cars taking over our roads and literally relegating human drivers to the back seat, it is in the ancient practice of agriculture that autonomous artificial intelligence vehicles seem to be destined to go into service first. The latest evidence? Herbicide robots.
A French company called Naïo Technologies has developed three different electric robot vehicles capable of removing weeds from row crops, tackling the high-cost double-headed agricultural quagmire of weeding and the persistent shortage of willing workers. This innovation is coming to the United States. In addition to having about 150 robots in use in Canada, Europe and Japan, Naïo has begun testing its autonomous weed killers on 15 different commercial farms in California. The company said last month that it had raised about $15.29 million, which it is using in part to boost the U.S. market.
"Our robotic weeders are as environmentally friendly as they are humane," "They provide a solution to address the shortage of farm workers, reduce the strenuous physical workload of manual weeding and limit the use of chemical herbicides.
It's not the only company working on autonomous weed-killing technology. Agricultural giant John Deere in 2017 spent $305 million to acquire a Silicon Valley startup that developed a precision herbicide spraying robot called Lettuce Bot, while a San Francisco company called FarmWise Labs, which has developed an orange tank-like weed-killing robot, said it had raised $14.5 million in venture funds.
Sustainable and Less Invasive Agriculture
This technological innovation bodes well for the future of less chemical-intensive agriculture. A study by UC Davis found that manual weeding costs about $300 per half hectare, while the market for pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified seeds depends on farmers spraying fields with chemicals worth $100 billion.
Naïo has developed three different robots to pick herbs: the lightweight Oz, designed for small farms and greenhouses; Ted, a hoop vehicle for vineyards already in use in the south of France; and Dino, the flagship vehicle designed to combat weeds on large-scale vegetable farms. All combine precision GPS navigation, mechanical weeding arms that use automatic learning to identify weeds and the ability to map crops and send data to farmers. They also have ingenious tank rotation capabilities to make U-turns in tight spaces.
Naïo plans to open a center in California later this year to store, maintain and market its robots, with a commercial launch expected in the United States later this year as well. As expected, all this technology is not cheap, the Dino costs around USD 220,000 but Naïo plans to rent them out to farmers or help them with financing options. According to reports, trials in the United States have generated promising results.
It is difficult to say which company will be the first to market self-employed weed harvesters, but it seems safe to say that their day will come soon.