Farm Robots Will Solve Many of Our Food Worries

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A robot army is beginning its march across rural America, promising to transform the future of food. Twenty-five intelligent machines were dispatched last month to the Midwest and the Mississippi Delta, where they will advance over newly planted fields at 12 miles an hour, annihilating baby weeds.

Produced by John Deere and created by the startup Blue River Technology, these robotic weeders look much like standard industrial sprayers at first glance, but each is rigged with an intricate system of 36 cameras and a mass of tiny hoses. They use computer vision to distinguish between crops and weeds and then deploy with sniper-like precision tiny jets of herbicide onto the weeds — sparing the crop and ending the common practice of broadcast-spraying chemicals across billions of acres.

The “See and Spray Ultimate” robots are expensive, enormous, wildly complex machines currently accessible only to industrial-scale farmers, but within a few years their impact on the environment and human health could be nothing short of spectacular. They are in the vanguard of a wave of reimagined agricultural equipment that will help farmers produce more food on less land with radically reduced chemical applications.

Intelligent machines can treat plants individually, eventually applying not just herbicides but pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers on a plant-by-plant — rather than field-by-field — basis. This kind of hyper-precision may do more than ratchet down agrochemical usage, also allowing for more diversity and crop-mixing on fields, so that larger farms can begin to mimic natural systems. Meanwhile, robotic planters and combines are already showing yield improvements of up to 2%, and robotic harvesters could eventually alleviate increasingly grueling farm work and labor shortages.

Robots on farms, for all their environmental and ethical promise, raise plenty of concerns — some valid, others spurious. They will add cost and complexity to farming equipment, making farmers increasingly reliant on Big Ag companies like John Deere. In the beginning, they will strengthen the dominance of large industrial operators while eluding the local small and midsize farmers who are essential to sustainable and resilient food systems.

So as the era of artificial intelligence in farming dawns, manufacturers, the Biden administration and investors should be thinking about how to develop this market responsibly. Funding should be steered to the development of smaller, more affordable machines while also supporting a rental economy that enables local and midsize farmers to lease, if not own, this next-generation equipment. The US Department of Agriculture should also create rebate and tax-credit programs to help farmers affordably trade out old machinery for new.

See and Spray is one of seven AI products that John Deere now has in development, including robotic planters, self-driving tractors and combinations that meticulously separate wheat from chaff. All are equipped with dozens of cameras and algorithm-crunching data processors that examine, analyze and measure every plant and seed on a field.

“We’re doubling down, tripling down on investment in robotics and machine learning,” Jorge Heraud, Deere’s vice president of automation and machine autonomy, told me. Having grown up working on (and weeding) his grandparents’ tomato farm in Peru, Heraud founded Blue River Technology, which Deere acquired in 2017 along with its See and Spray prototype for $305 million. In five years, Heraud has helped grow Deere’s AI team to 400 people from 50.

Many skeptics I’ve talked with question whether this equipment will ever be widely adopted. Deere says it already has more demand than it’s ready to meet: Heraud decided to release only 25 in its first fleet because the company is still honing the financing and servicing model. Currently, Deere is charging an upfront price that they won’t disclose (it’s at least the cost of a standard sprayer of this size, about $500,000), plus an ongoing per-acre fee that may be charged monthly or annually and includes software upgrades and maintenance. Heraud plans to increase the fleet by a factor of 10 annually, so that by 2025 the company will have thousands of robotic weeders on the market.

The worry that intelligent machines will simply make industrial farms bigger and farmers lazier, less responsible stewards of the land is unfounded. These kinds of advanced technologies have extraordinary potential to help farmers improve the health of their soil and the quality of the food they produce by drastically reducing the use of harmful chemical herbicides such as glyphosate, Dicamba and 2,4-D.

Twenty billion gallons of herbicide are currently applied annually by sprayers worldwide across one billion acres of farmland. When See and Spray technology is integrated into all sprayers sold by the company, which Heraud says could happen within a decade, the volume of herbicide deployed on these farms could plummet to four billion. Future generations of the equipment may also be able to significantly curtail the use of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers, which, when overapplied, fuel climate change.

Governments can help allay concerns with incentives: The California Air Resources Board provides a helpful model, offering farmers rebates for upgrading their existing machinery to models with cleaner engines. The USDA and investors can also encourage the development of a rental economy by incentivizing and funding young companies like Nutrien Ag Solutions in the US and Hello Tractor in Africa that function like the Ubers of agriculture, enabling small and midsize farmers to lease or acquire fractional ownership of next-generation farm equipment without having to maintain it or learn the technology.

Venture capital can be directed to support new players in the AI ​​market. One young startup, Earthsense, is developing robots the size of microwaves that rove around farms removing weeds. Deere is also working on smaller, more affordable machines.

For better or worse — I strongly believe for better — the era of AI agriculture has arrived. And if investors and government officials do their part to support the responsible development and adoption of this technology, the result would be nothing short of a paradigm shift toward sustainable farming. Virtually every aspect of food production, from planting to processing, could be revolutionized, making it feasible to feed a hotter, more populous world.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Food Crisis Is Bad; Crop Insurance Makes It Worse: Adam Minter

World’s Food Baskets Need a Better Safety Net: David Fickling

In Singapore, a Chicken Ban Is a Serious Threat: Daniel Moss

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”

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