Date: Nov 17, 2020
Magazine:
November/December 2020

By Tim Linden

As 2020 moves toward the finish line, FarmWise has completed its first commercial season using automated machines to eliminate weeds on a variety of crops in the Santa Maria and Salinas regions. The company has now deployed its 12 machines for winter vegetable production in Yuma offering the same weeding service to growers in that region as it continues to prove that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are real time solutions for growers.

Sébastien Boyer and Thomas Palomares, two European transplants with agricultural roots, founded FarmWise in the summer of 2016. They began their journey together a few years earlier as the pair of engineers pursued their studies in Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University computer labs. It was there that they combined their passion for sustainability with their love of technology and belief in the power of AI. They formed their company with its headquarters in San Francisco and quickly became a resident of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. For the past several years, they have been working hand in hand with visionary growers as well as a team of both farming and technology experts.

They believe that robotic technology can be used in many farming practices and have taken that concept to market with the automated weeder. After working on both the hardware and software for a couple of years and raising $20 million from the investment market, a dozen machines were built in a Michigan factory and brought to the California coast, first for trial and now for use on a commercial basis. Boyer revealed that each machine has five cameras and 12 tiny robotic hoes, which were designed to mimic a farm laborer’s weeding efforts. The cameras take pictures of the row as the machine travels over it, identifies weeds in less than a half a second and then the computer software instructs the hoes to eliminate each weed.

Boyer said the computer program utilizes AI so there is active learning occurring each time the machine works a field. Every week, the computer is programmed to update its software to capture that learning. It is the modern-day equivalent of taking software from a 1.0 to a 2.0 version, but it is an ongoing process.

Initially, the machines work best on some basic core crops such as cauliflower, broccoli, iceberg and romaine lettuce. Boyer said the first-generation machine is most efficient when there is spacing between each plant. But with its AI capabilities, he is certain the computer program running the machine will improve over time becoming more efficient with the ability to move faster through the fields and work on a wider variety of crops.

FarmWise’s business model is built on a service approach just as other ag service providers operates, though Boyer said other options may emerge in the future. With only 12 machines, FarmWise currently has more demand for the automatic weeding than it can handle. He said no longer is it just visionaries that are willing to work with the company but growers of all stripes. As it continues to improve the capability of its Titan FT 35 weeding machine, the company is trying to work with as many growers as it can. He added that a lot of doors have been opened since the machines began to be used commercially this summer and were seen out in the fields. To accommodate as many growers as possible, FarmWise is limiting the numbers of acres it will work for any one grower. “We can’t take 50 percent of a grower’s acreage,” Boyer said. “We are interested in working on one block per week, for example.”

The service is currently being provided for $100 to $600 per acre, depending upon many factors. Boyer said this is a competitive rate in which the grower can realize immediate savings versus a hand weeding crew or a chemical spraying operation.

FarmWise does need to add to its fleet of weeding machines and that effort is ongoing. But Boyer is also very excited about the future and the ability to use robotics and AI to tackle other labor-intensive farming activities, such as harvesting the crop. He said the basic concept for harvesting is the same as weeding. A crop will be photographed and in real-time, a computer will be utilized to identify which head of lettuce should be picked or stalk of broccoli cut, and that information will be relayed to a robotic arm or hand. “I definitely see that on the horizon,” he said. “The technology exists. My bet is we will see that in the next three to five years.”

Boyer said that being a member of WGCIT has been extremely useful in the evolution of FarmWise. “It was the entry point for farmers and service providers. It provided the link to the rest of the industry for us.”

As the company has developed relationships with many different growers, he said they do not need to go through the center for introductions anymore, but they still utilize the staff and fellow residents for guidance.

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