Blue River Technology Uses Robots, Artificial Intelligence to Kill Weeds12/20/2016
If you’ve taken a look across agriculture’s landscape lately, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a shift. The industry is faced with figuring out how to produce more than ever, with fewer inputs, on less land, and with increased regulations – all while trying to stay competitive. Technology could be the key to unlocking it all. It’s also why Silicon Valley has set its sights on agriculture.
Making every plant count is at the heart of Blue River Technology’s mission. The California-based company has developed a pioneering approach that utilizes computer vision and robotics to build a solution where the needs of each plant are precisely measured and delivered while significantly reducing chemical use.
“We want to be able to recognize weeds and spray just the weeds and not the crops,” explains cofounder Jorge Heraud. “This has several advantages. It doesn’t require selective herbicides, as selectivity is provided by our machine. This opens the door to new chemistries and allows us to move from agriculture’s overreliance on herbicides. For example, Roundup represents close to 90% of all herbicide used in the U.S. However, it’s not effective on approximately 60,000,000 acres due to overuse.”
He says the company’s machine, which was developed with partner Lee Redden, can also reduce chemical use by up to 10 times because it only targets weeds. “This would not only save in chemical costs, but also reduce the environmental impact,” explains Heraud. “This technology could even bypass the need for genetic engineering of herbicide-tolerant plants.”
The duo’s vision is rapidly becoming a reality with LettuceBot. “Through a thinning process, our machine is capable of measuring and spraying 5,000 plants per minute,” says Heraud.
Barely 4 years old, Blue River was conceived by the two Stanford graduate students when they realized they had a common goal: to work on real-world problems. Both men bring a wealth of knowledge to the table. Heraud worked as the head of precision agriculture at Trimble for 15 years; Redden was a doctoral student and roboticist.
“After exploring several options and talking with potential customers, we decided the problem of weed control was exceptionally interesting and well suited for our backgrounds,” says Heraud. “It was an area that was also in need of urgent change.”
Although breeding, chemicals, and biochemistry have had an effect on agriculture, information technology (like computers and data processing) has had a minor role to date. It’s also why the pair targeted sustainability.
“We felt the opportunity to make an impact was great, and the need for improvement was huge,” Heraud says. “More forest has been cleared for agriculture than any other human activity. Agriculture is behind huge hypoxia regions, contaminated wells, and is, in general, not sustainable. We need to produce about 70% more food in the next 30 to 50 years. We can’t clear more forests to get there.”
Technology could be the key to achieving that demand for more food with fewer resources.
As Heraud and Redden work toward expanding beyond lettuce with this technology, they want your input.
“We’d love to hear from farmers about the problems they’re facing with weeds and in which crops,” says Heraud. “This will help us decide what to target next.”
Source: Laurie Bedford, Agriculture.com