Tiny weed-killing robots could make pesticides obsolete

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This swarm of robots may herald a chemical-free food revolution

The fleet of Greenfield Robotics weedbots ready and waiting for beta test trials. Photos courtesy of Greenfield Robotics.

Clint Brauer’s farm outside of Cheney, Kansas, could be described as Old MacDonald’s Farm plus robots. Along with 5,500 square feet of vegetable-growing greenhouses, classes teaching local families to grow their food, a herd of 105 sheep, and Warren G—a banana-eating llama named after the rapper—is a fleet of ten, 140-pound, battery-operated robots.

Brauer, the co-founder of Greenfield Robotics, grew up a farm kid. He left for the big city tech and digital world, but eventually made his way back to the family farm. Now, it’s the R&D headquarters for the Greenfield Robotics team, plus a working farm.

When Brauer returned to his agricultural roots, he did so with a purpose: to prove that food could be grown without harmful chemicals and by embracing soil- and planet-friendly practices. He did just that, becoming one of the premier farmers growing vegetables in Kansas without pesticides, selling to local markets, grocery store chains, and chefs.

But it wasn’t enough to make the difference Brauer was hoping for. Sure, he was growing a lot of environmentally friendly, pesticide-free vegetables. But a few acres in chemical-free vegetable production was nothing compared to miles and miles of broadacre, arable farmland that make up the majority of America’s agricultural lands.

Brauer was especially intrigued by no-till solutions for soil health. No-till is exactly what it sounds like: farming without using techniques like plowing and cultivation, which “disturb” the soil to kill weeds. Many U.S. farmers, especially those in America’s heartland of corn, soy, and wheat production, have already switched to or are looking to embrace no-till practices. Over 104 million acres were farmed no-till in 2017, an increase of 8% since 2012. Just over 900 million acres, including no-till land, were farmed in the United States in 2017, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

But parking machinery to improve soil health often comes with a trade that didn’t sit well with Brauer: dependence on chemical weed control. No-till works to improve soil health, but the trade-off in chemical use is not much better for the environment than conventional farming. Regardless of the type of farming, the problem is the same.

“You got to start with weeds. It’s the number one thing that farmers are fighting,” Brauer says.

That’s where the robots come in.

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Swarms of teeny robo-tractors will outmaneuver Tesla’s driverless cars

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While Elon Musk and Waymo get all the attention — and regulations — autonomous vehicles for farming face fewer tech barriers and could be just as important

Between 2009 and 2015, Google spent $1.1 billion on autonomous vehicles for its Waymo subsidiary, which have so far roamed more than 10 million miles of city streets — though none of those miles have yet involved a paying customer. Tesla, which builds the data collection it uses to improve its autonomous technology into every vehicle it sells, lost more than $1 billion as a company last year alone. In pursuit of viable self-driving cars, the companies have had to navigate a web of regulation that varies from state to state, apply for permits, and risk getting banned from roads if they fail to follow the rules. Neither of their self-driving technologies is ready to be set loose on public streets without a human safety driver behind the wheel or navigating previously approved routes.

But Zack James faced few barriers when he started his autonomous tractor company in 2017. His roughly 200-pound tractors are closer in size to a riding lawn mower (and about half the weight) than they are to traditional combines and sprayers, and the open metal frame vehicles work together in a swarm. After coming up with the concept while in law school at the University of Michigan, it took James about a month to fabricate the first prototype, which he soon tested on a family field in Crown Point, Indiana, standing by in case the tractor encountered an obstacle it couldn’t yet navigate.

Instead of sleek Teslas or robot Ubers, the first truly driverless vehicles are more likely to look like James’ tractors: rolling placidly over a cornfield at a max speed of 7 mph.

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Doubt cast on advantages of organic produce and meat

Researchers say organic foods are no more nutritious and no less likely to be contaminated.

Are organic fruits and vegetables more nutritious than conventional fruits and vegetables?  Maybe — or maybe not.

Scientists at Stanford University have weighed in on the “maybe not” side of the debate after an extensive examination of four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods.

 

 

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What you need to know about what’s inside those breasts

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Breasts are getting bigger and arriving earlier. They’re also attracting chemicals and environmental toxins, which are getting passed along in breast milk.

Writer Florence Williams read a research study about toxins found in human breast milk when she was nursing her second child. After reading the study she decided to test her own breast milk and shipped a sample to a lab in Germany.

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Explosives and Pesticides Can be Detected by Using Bee Venom

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MIT scientists discover that bee venom can detect explosives and some pesticides.

Scientists from MIT have discovered that by coating carbon nanotubes in bee venom, they can create ultra-sensitive detectors for explosives such as TNT, as well as at least two different types of pesticides. This means that bees and their stingers could become important to making better environmental sensors.

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Prenatal Exposure to Pesticides Leads to Diminished IQ’s in Children

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The study found some of the risks that pesticides were already known to pose to children, including ADHD and learning difficulties.

It was reported this week by the Environmental Working Group that three studies published simultaneously all came to the same eye-opening conclusion.  The conclusion was prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides leads to diminished IQs in children between the ages of 6 and 9.

 

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Wind Turbines Contributing to Decline of Bat Population

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Wind turbines are a major threat to bats.

Wind turbines are killing many thousands of bats contributing to a population decline that may be costing farmers millions of pounds, say researchers.   Scientists found the blades of wind turbines were a major threat to bats particularly when they are migrating.

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Collapse of the Honeybee Population Could be Linked to Pesticides

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Even tiny doses of ‘neonicotinoids’ made the insects more susceptible to disease.

Pesticides are making honey bees far more susceptible to disease, according to new research than links a new group of chemicals to the recent collapse in the bee population.   The US research, revealed in a new film about the disappearance of bees, found even tiny doses of ‘neonicotinoids’ made the insects more susceptible to disease.

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New Study Suggests Exposure to Pesticides Prime Cause of ADHD

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Organophosphate pesticides are widely used in the United States to control insects on food crops.

A growing body of evidence is suggesting that exposure to organophosphate pesticides is a prime cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. The findings are considered plausible to many experts because the pesticides are designed to attack the nervous systems of insects. It is not surprising, then, that they should also impinge on the nervous systems of humans who are exposed to them.

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Round-Up Resistant Weeds Pose a Threat to Farmers

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A certified crop adviser and agronomist looks for weeds resistant to glyphosate.

For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.

 

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