Organic Farmer Robot Spots and Kills Weeds

Photo of a prototype of the weeding robot
A startup company is working on a robot that recognizes weeds from lettuces, then kills the weeds without using herbicides. Here, an engineer gathers images of the field using an early prototype. (Image credit: Blue River Technology )

Organic farming may get a little high-tech help in the future. A new robot, still in development, is now able to roll along the rows in fields, spot weeds, and kill weeds with an injection of fertilizer. Future versions may be able to pull weeds out by the roots, just like a person would, GigaOM reported.

The robot is meant to eliminate both the use of herbicides and manual weed-pulling, the cost of which is one contributor to the higher price of organic produce, Jorge Heraud, an engineer who's working on the robot, told the news website Kidela in 2011. Heraud co-founded a company, Blue River Technology, to develop the auto-weeder. 

As many amateur gardeners have found, it's difficult even for an untrained human to tell the difference between seedling lettuces and seedling weeds. The new weeder-bot relies on three sets of computer instructions to complete its task, Heraud told GigaOM.

First, the robot uses cameras to scan the ground. Meanwhile, a computer vision algorithm recognizes when the cameras see plants. The algorithm is able to distinguish two plants even if they're right next to each other. 

Then, the robots' creators built into the robot the ability to learn from a large set of marked examples, a process called machine learning. Heraud and his colleagues taught their weeding-bot which plants were weeds and which were lettuces by rolling an earlier prototype down fields, capturing images for their training. The present robot only works for lettuces, GigaOM reported. The distinguishing algorithm is about 98 or 99 percent accurate, Heraud told GigaOm.

Lastly, the robot has accurately aim at, and kill, weeds as it moves.

Blue River has captured GigaOM's and other tech sites' attention recently because the company announced on Sept. 10 that it raised $3.1 million in a first major round of funding from investors. Previously, the weeding robot was funded by National Science Foundation grant for small businesses and in smaller amounts from private investors. The new cash will help the company commercialize its machines, Heraud told GigaOM.

Sources: GigaOMKidelaBlue River Technology

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