A new robot from Carbon Robotics can kill 100,000 weeds in an hour while keeping a farm organic.
Earlier this year, on a farm in southern New Mexico, a new kind of worker spent each day traveling slowly up and down the rows and rows of crops. On board, its 12 high-res cameras pointed at the ground, sending data to an artificial intelligence system that can nearly instantly identify plants. When the system detects a weed, a laser flashes, killing it.
“I think this will be the biggest revolution in weed killers in agriculture,” says James Johnson, the fourth-generation farmer who runs the farm that tested the robot and has two production models on order for delivery this fall. The tech is now poised to expand thanks to a startup called Carbon Robotics, which announced today that it has secured a $27 million Series B financing round.
The startup’s founder, Paul Mikesell, previously worked on computer vision and deep learning at companies like Uber and Facebook but realized that the technology could be put to a different use. “I watched this revolution happen in the last five to seven years in capabilities of computers to do real object detection and environment understanding from AI systems,” he says. “That will enable a lot of other autonomy in a bunch of industrial settings. And we felt like farming was one of the most important ones to tackle.”
Around 280 million pounds of glyphosate, the active ingredient in weed killers like Roundup, are used each year in the U.S. alone. As use of the herbicide has increased—driven partly by the fact that some crops are engineered to be “Roundup Ready” so they can survive being sprayed—weeds have evolved to resist glyphosate, so more and more of it has to be used to keep working. “Unfortunately, we found that the more pesticides we use, the worse the pests got,” Johnson says. Studies have also linked glyphosate exposure to an increased risk of the cancer non-Hodgkin lymphoma (manufacturers of weed killers dispute this). More research is needed on the environmental impacts, but herbicides can potentially pollute water and kill beneficial microbes in soil.
The laser-shooting robots, which carefully aim at the growth cells in a weed and burn through them, kill weeds without using chemicals. “You can completely eliminate herbicides using this,” Mikesell says. “If you want to produce some organic crops, which have a higher market value, our system is a USDA-certified organic solution.” (Organic farmers now sometimes employ a somewhat related process called flaming to kill weeds, using propane torches to burn them, but it can be done only before crops are planted because otherwise it would also kill the crops.)Using lasers also means that farmers can avoid tilling the soil, helping to keep it healthier and potentially helping store more carbon in it. While the robots don’t currently run on renewable energy, Mikesell says the company aims to work on that in the future, helping farmers further lower their carbon footprints.
“When you don’t disturb the topsoil, the general ecosystem becomes a lot healthier,” he says. “It keeps all that microbacteria in the ground, healthy and ready to absorb nutrients and make it available for the plants. And it really increases crop quality and quantity because the only thing we’re doing is just picking out these little weeds. We’re not dumping chemicals into the ground and tearing up the soil.”
Over time, the technology, which can kill 100,000 weeds per hour, also becomes less expensive than buying herbicides; the cost breaks even after three to five growing seasons. On the farm in New Mexico, Johnson plans to test the robots against herbicides to see how much the quality of his crops may also improve, since he says that herbicides damage the plants he grows.
With the new round of funding, Carbon Robotics will invest in engineering and expand to more farms. As Mikesell notes, “Inbound farmer demand has outstripped our ability to keep up with it.”