While driving down the road through the iconic Salinas fog, all looks normal in Monterey County at first glance. Endless rows of lettuce, strawberries, and broccoli line the fields; farmers survey the grounds, meticulously checking on the crops, soil and equipment; and farmworkers span the fields, rapidly preparing for planting and harvesting. But then a sleek, green and white robot with tractor-like wheels moves swimmingly up and down the rows.
The machine, affectionately called “Dino” by inventor Naïo Technologies, is on a search-and-destroy mission. Its target? Weeds. Dino’s range of mechanical weeding tools—including spiked harrows and rotary hoes—are GPS and camera guided, which allows the machine to kill weeds swiftly and precisely while eliminating the need for pesticides or plastic crop covers.
“Our weeding robots respect both the environment and man,” said Simon Belin, the U.S. technical referent for Naïo Technologies. “We provide a solution to assist farmers in their daily work, reduce the strenuous physical workload and limit the use of chemical weed killers.”
Dino is among three robots designed by Naïo that weed, hoe and monitor crops completely autonomously. Equipped with a standard navigation system that can be implemented on any off-road robot, these mechanical weeders can be used for a wide variety of crop types on any sized farm.
Meet the Robots
Naïo is based in France and was founded in 2011 by two robotic engineers, Aymeric Barthes and Gaëtan Séverac, who believed that “robotics is a perfect way to feed humanity in the coming years with sustainable agriculture.” Though the company has only been up and running for less than a decade, it has already deployed 150 robots to tackle weeding issues across Europe and North America. Today, the company is focusing on its international expansion into the United States and has set roots in Salinas, California, at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT).
“Seeing an opportunity for growers in California and Arizona to benefit from our robots, Naïo sent me here in February 2019 to set up shop with a hot desk at the Western Growers’ Center,” said Belin. “It was just me and one robot. Now, we have a team of four and operate five robots.”
The five machines include three vegetable robots (called Dino) and two weeding robots (called Oz). Belin expects to have Naïo’s vineyard robot (called Ted) available in the United States in September 2020.
The differences between each robot are as follows:
OZ: ideal for small-scale vegetable farms such as nurseries and gardens
Oz has two operation modes which include effortlessly hoeing between rows and plants and towing a trailer or seat to save time on harvest, trellising and debudding. First, farmers select the characteristics for the plot to be weeded (number of rows, distance between rows, crop type, etc.). Next, Oz automatically hoes between rows and plants. Then, Oz conducts autonomous turning at the end of each row. Lastly, the robot sends a text message, alerting the farmer that the whole plot has been covered.
DINO: ideal for large-scale vegetable fields
The Dino robot allows farmers to manage crop weeding with a high level of precision, while helping them save time throughout the season. First, Dino memorizes the plot map, including the size of the beds and the number and length of rows. The second step is crop detection, where the robot’s camera vision detects the plants to position its tools as closely as possible to the crop. The final step is using GPS tracking to work autonomously up and down the rows, ensuring that its suite of retractable hoes and harrows eliminate all weeds.
TED: ideal for vineyards
Ted is a multifunctional straddling vineyard robot that efficiently and precisely maintains and weeds vine rows. First, Ted memorizes the plot map. Next, the robot uses GPS tracking to work autonomously. Then, Ted’s camera vision and sensors detect the vines to position the tools as closely as possible to the crop.
The three robots are silent, lightweight and work efficiently in both dry and wet soil conditions. Currently, Naïo is working on finalizing new software that will allow the robots to also collect data as they cultivate, providing farmers another added value.
Try Before You Buy
To provide growers with the most up-to-date precision technology, Naïo offers the robots as a service.
“Technology is rapidly evolving, and we don’t want growers to buy our machines and have its technology obsolete in five years,” said Belin, noting how the company is continuously updating the machines’ hardware and software, ensuring that all robots have the latest technology.
“Because we are only providing it as a service right now, rather than selling the machine outright, growers have time to truly understand the technology and learn how to integrate the robot into their operations to achieve the most ideal results. Plus, it’s much more affordable,” he said.
Dino, which is most applicable to the many large-scale vegetable growers within Western Growers’ membership, can cultivate up to 12 acres in nine hours. When tapping into Dino’s services, the Naïo team will travel to the farm, visit with the grower to ensure all needs are met, map each field and operate the machine. No fuss, no muss!
Using $50-$100 dollars per acre as a baseline, the Naïo team will work with each grower to determine an appropriate cost based on crop, difficulty of precision, and coverage area, among other field characteristics. Naïo currently serves regions throughout California and Arizona, including the Salinas Valley, Santa Maria, Napa and Yuma, and plans to expand its reach with assistance from the WGCIT.
“Being part of the innovation center and Western Growers as an association has allowed us to connect with key contacts in the U.S.,” said Belin. “Mr. [Dennis] Donohue knows all the right growers who would benefit most from our robots and has been able to help us get on the right track. This has been great for us and for our expansion into international markets.”