Carbon Robotics, a Seattle-based developer of autonomous farm technology, has announced its third generation of weed elimination robots.

The Autonomous Weeder, developed by Carbon Robotics, uses a combination of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and laser technology to safely and effectively drive through crop fields – identifying, targeting and eliminating weeds.

Unlike other weeding technologies, the robot utilises high-power lasers to eradicate weeds through thermal energy, without disturbing the soil. This could allow farmers to use less herbicides, while reducing labour costs and improving the reliability and predictability of crop yields.

“AI and deep learning technology are creating efficiencies across a variety of industries and we’re excited to apply it to agriculture,” said Paul Mikesell, CEO and founder of Carbon Robotics. “Farmers, and others in the global food supply chain, are innovating now more than ever to keep the world fed. Our goal is to create tools that address their most challenging problems, including weed management and elimination.” 

The technology developed by Carbon Robotics can improve crop yields and quality, since lasers leave soil microbiology undisturbed, unlike tillage. The lack of herbicides and soil disruption can pave the way for a regenerative approach, leading to healthier crops and higher yields, as well as reduced health problems in humans and other mammals.

A reduction in overall costs is another major benefit. The costs of manual labour are highly variable and often represent farmers’ biggest outlay, while crop inputs such as herbicides and fertilisers can be expensive too. The Autonomous Weeder provides lower, more stable and predictable costs.

Shay Myers, who runs Owyhee Produce in Idaho, told the Seattle Times that his first sight of the machine in a field “was like science fiction.” The initial investment is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he expects the robots “should pay for themselves in two or three years.”

Carbon Robotics’ new machine is designed for row crops ranging from 200 acres up to tens of thousands of acres. A single robot will weed up to 20 acres per day and can replace several deployments of hand-weeding crews. It can run day and night – using precision, real-time targeting to kill 100,000 weeds per hour – making it 20 times faster than the equivalent human labour. Since its founding in 2018, the company has worked closely with farmers to optimise its technology, which supports both conventional and organic farmers. The robots have undergone beta testing on specialty crops farms, working on fields with a variety of crops including broccoli and onions.

The AI is powered by 8x NVIDIA 30-Series GPUs, combined with 12 high-resolution cameras. The navigation system includes LiDAR sensors for obstacle detection and GPS accurate to within 6 inches. Eight independent weeding modules are ready to fire every 50 milliseconds and can pinpoint weeds to within 3mm accuracy. The vehicle moves at 5 mph, stays inside a pre-determined geofence and knows when to turn.

“This is one of the most innovative and valuable technologies that I’ve seen as a farmer,” said James Johnson of Carzalia Farm, New Mexico, who has adopted Carbon Robotics’ technology on his farm. “I expect the robots to go mainstream because of how effectively they address some of farming’s most critical issues, including the overuse of chemicals, process efficiency and labour. These robots work with a variety of crops, are autonomous and organic. The sky’s the limit.”