When the majority of Americans think about robotics and artificial intelligence, one of the last things that comes to mind right now is the farming industry. But Paul Mikesell, Founder and CEO of Seattle-based Carbon Robotics, is looking to change that.
Founded in 2018, Carbon Robotics is an agricultural startup that builds innovative tools that provides farmers with precise and cost-effective weed control solutions for large-scale specialty crops. And the company’s innovative influence now extends to Salinas, Calif., after joining the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT) six months ago.
“We wanted to become a part of the Western Growers Center of Innovation and Technology because Western Growers is known as a center of excellence by all the farmers and growers we work with, and it’s important to be a part of an organization that supports a vital industry,” he said.
Mikesell has been a huge contributor in the tech startup space for nearly 20 years, working on robotics and advanced techniques for AI-driven computer vision systems for notable companies in Silicon Valley. As someone who has always had an interest in the way our food is grown, Mikesell started to talk to farmers about what was happening in their fields and discovered that weed control was a constant problem.
Before Carbon Robotics took its first round of Series A financing, the company spent a lot of time in the field talking with farmers. “We dedicated a lot of our time to understanding where there’s room for optimization and improvement, and we looked at our skills and abilities to see where we could help. It’s crucial to spend time in the fields with the farmers to see what’s really going on,” he said.
Carbon Robotics launched its first product, the Autonomous LaserWeeder, in the spring of 2021. Using the latest techniques in AI and deep learning technology, the LaserWeeder instantly identifies, targets and eliminates weeds using high-powered lasers and thermal technology. Its computer vision model is trained to identify weeds and crops from images of field pictures and can accurately spot weeds in all types of soil and weather conditions amid different crops. The bot’s laser beam hits the weeds at the meristem, destroying those cells through applying heat energy and destroying the cell membranes. The result? A dead weed that is unable to photosynthesize and dies in the field.
The technology has since been responsible for killing more than 100 million weeds, a figure that is proudly tracked and displayed on a big screen in the company’s office. “We’ve heard from multiple growers that we’re saving them 80 percent on their weed control costs, and that’s a number that a couple of different growers came to independently,” Mikesell said.
His team is currently focused on gathering more data around increased yield and crop quality. “Over time, we plan to demonstrate increased yield because the laser doesn’t hurt the crops—it just targets the weeds.”
To date, Carbon Robotics has received orders from more than 50 farms. “We’re fulfilling current orders through next year and taking orders all the way out into 2024,” he said. And while the company is just selling in the U.S. for now, Mikesell has plans to start exploring international opportunities after generating interest from the UK, EU, Australia and New Zealand.
“Growing food is one of the most important things humans can do for each other,” he said. “Helping farmers has a much deeper and greater affect than anything else we can do in the tech space. Providing access to high-quality, nutritional food in a way that doesn’t harm the environment and protects farmers’ land is a real challenge, and that’s what we’re trying to do at Carbon Robotics.”