Much relies on farmers’ capacity to manage weeds, which might choke crops and destroy yields. To defend crops, farmers have two choices: they will spray herbicides that pollute the setting and hurt human well being, or they will rent extra employees.
Unfortunately, each selections have gotten much less and fewer tenable. Herbicide resistance is a rising drawback in crops around the globe, whereas widespread labor shortages have hit the agricultural sector notably arduous.
Now the startup FarmWise, co-founded by Sebastien Boyer SM ’16, is giving farmers a 3rd choice. The firm has developed autonomous weed robots that use synthetic intelligence to tug weeds whereas leaving crops untouched.
The firm’s first robotic, aptly named the Titan – think about a big tractor that makes use of a trailer as a substitute of a driver’s seat – makes use of machine imaginative and prescient to tell apart weeds from crops, together with leafy greens, cauliflower, artichokes and tomatoes, whereas cuts weeds with sub-inch precision.
About 15 Titans have roamed the fields of 30 giant farms in California and Arizona lately, pulling weeds as a courtesy whereas being directed by an iPad. Last month, the corporate unveiled its latest robotic, Vulcan, which is lighter and pulled by a tractor.
“We have a growing population and we can’t expand the land or water we have, so we need to dramatically increase the efficiency of the agricultural sector,” says Boyer. “I think AI and data will be key players in that journey.”
Finding a technique to influence
Boyer got here to MIT in 2014 and earned grasp’s levels in expertise and coverage, electrical engineering, and laptop science over the following two years.
“What stood out was the passion my classmates had for what they were doing – the drive and passion people had to change the world,” says Boyer.
As a part of his graduate work, Boyer researched machine studying and machine imaginative and prescient strategies, and shortly started exploring methods to use these applied sciences to environmental issues. He acquired a small grant from MIT Sandbox to additional develop the concept.
“That helped me make the decision not to take a real job,” Boyer recollects.
After commencement, he and FarmWise co-founder Thomas Palomares, a Stanford University graduate who met Boyer in his house nation of France, started going to farmers’ markets, introducing themselves to smallholder farmers and asking for excursions of their farms. About one in three farmers favored to point out them round. From there, they requested for referrals to bigger farmers and trade service suppliers.
“We realized that agriculture is a major contributor to both emissions and, more generally, to the negative impact of human activities on the environment,” says Boyer. “It is also not as disrupted by software, cloud computing, AI and robotics as other industries. That combination really appeals to us.”
Through their conversations, the founders discovered that herbicides turn out to be much less efficient as weeds develop genetic resistance. The solely different is to rent extra employees, which in itself grew to become tougher for the farmers.
“Work is extremely tight,” says Boyer, including that bending over and weeding 10 hours a day is likely one of the hardest jobs on the market. “The labor supply is shrinking if not collapsing in the US, and it is a global trend. That has real environmental implications because of the tradeoff [between labor and herbicides].”
The drawback is very acute for farmers of specialty crops, together with many fruits, greens and nuts, which develop on smaller farms than corn and soybeans and every require barely totally different cultivation strategies, limiting the effectiveness of many engineering and chemical options.
“We don’t hand-harvest corn these days, but we still hand-harvest lettuce, nuts and apples,” says Boyer.
The Titan was constructed to enhance discipline employees’ efforts to develop and preserve crops. An operator controls it utilizing an iPad, walks alongside the machine and inspects its progress. Both the Titan and Vulcan are powered by an AI that sends lots of of tiny blades to weed out round any crop. The Vulcan is managed immediately from the tractor cab, the place the driving force has a touchscreen interface that Boyer likens to the one in a Tesla.
With greater than 15,000 business hours, FarmWise hopes that the information collected can be utilized for extra than simply weeding within the close to future.
“It’s all about precision,” says Boyer. “We will better understand what the plant needs and make smarter decisions for each plant. That will get us to a point where we can use the same amount of land, much less water, almost no chemicals, much less fertilizer, and still produce more food than we produce now. That’s the mission. That’s what excites me.”
Eliminate agricultural challenges
A buyer not too long ago advised Boyer that with out the Titan he must change all of his natural crops again to standard as a result of he could not discover sufficient employees.
“That happens with a lot of customers,” says Boyer. “They don’t have any selection however to depend on herbicides. Acres stay natural with our product and standard farms cut back their use of herbicides.”
Now FarmWise is increasing its database to assist weeding six to 12 new crops per yr, and Boyer says including new crops is getting simpler and simpler for his system.
As early companions have tried to develop their deployments, Boyer says the one factor limiting the corporate’s development is how shortly it may possibly construct new robots. The new FarmWise machines shall be deployed later this yr.
While the hulking Titan robots are the face of the corporate in the present day, the founders hope to make use of the collected knowledge to additional enhance farming operations.
“The company’s mission is to turn AI into a tool that is as reliable and reliable as GPS is now in the agricultural industry,” says Boyer. “Twenty-five years ago, GPS was a very complicated technology. You had to connect to satellites and do crazy calculations to determine your position. But a few companies took GPS to a new level of reliability and simplicity. Today, every farmer in the world uses GPS. We believe AI can have an even bigger impact than GPS on the agriculture industry, and we want to be the company that makes it available and easy to use for every farmer in the world.”