Renewable Farming

When will a weed-whacking robot head for your farm’s fields?

French artist Jean-François Millet painted “The Man With a Hoe” in 1862. The oppression of that image inspired American poet Edwin Markam to create in 1889 a poem with the same name.

June 4, 2018 — First we’ll take a look back in time. Then, forward to a more hopeful future.

Here are just four of Edwin Markham’s stanzas:

How will you ever straighten up this shape; 
Touch it again with immortality; 
Give back the upward looking and the light; 
Rebuild in it the music and the dream

 This is the classic image which left Markham so disconsolate:




















Through generations since, weeds have compelled the same depressed attitude among farmers (and their kids drafted to ‘walk’ soybeans).

But just perhaps, Markham’s plea to “straighten up this shape” will be answered by the upcoming generations — of robotic weeding machines. We’ve wondered why the global farm-equipment corporations haven’t invested billions in weed-recognition robot machines that would roam your fields 24/7, zapping weeds with lasers. No escapes. No chance to develop chemical resistance. No drift or toxic residues. Just a crackle of cooking cockleburs and pop of vaporized palmer amaranth. Farmers’ killer instincts toward weeds would be fully satisfied. And it would be a spectator sport.

The other nearby photo is just one prototype of a robot weedeater now being beta-tested in Switzerland. It’s trained to recognize crops that belong in the field, and to spray a puff of burndown on anything else. You can watch the video of the machine in action at this link

One slight drawback with this unit is that it uses a tiny puff of burndown herbicide to take out the weeds. That could again prolong the challenge of weed resistance, and leave us with some residue, although greatly reduced amounts. Perhaps, if the eco-friendly “terminator” herbicide which we’ve been monitoring for three years gets cleared and proven, that’ll be a safer chemical than glyphosate or paraquat.
















Quite possibly the first economical and effective weeding robots will emerge from China, where software developers have refined face-recognition scanners so precise that they can detect a suspect in a milling, moving crowd. It should be elementary for programmers to sort corn at any stage from other crops in the field. Eventually, interplanted cover crops could also be electronically bypassed, while buttonwoods die. Certainly, lasers are far enough advanced for this role. Such machines could cruise 24 hours a day. No overtime, no green cards, no whining.

Meanwhile, the British and Europeans are leading the way toward crop robotics. Dr. Simon Blackmore heads up robotic research at the UK’s National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams University. Here’s a report based on his observations, recently posted on the website of Deutsche Welle, an independent German broadcaster which emphasizes press freedom via its international news network. It was founded May 3, 1953 and has continued growing in influence since. The photo here is from the Deutsche Welle website.  


Update November 20, 2018:  The New York Times features robotic harvest machines for vegetable growers.

There are other contenders in the “weed wars” tech race. Some of them are already sharing a debut on YouTube.  Some examples:

1. Tertill, a roaming little robot for your garden, nips tiny weeds. It was invented by the maker of the robotic vacuum cleaner.

2. The German company Bosch is developing a field-roving robot labeled Bonirob which can kill weeds, but also does a great deal more in analyzing the genetic makeup of crops and evaluate performance in the field.

3. A contest for crop robot builders at Harper Adams University in England reveals how tough it is to create a versatile machine capable of coping with ag conditions.

4. Another ag robot building contest led to a small innovative entity in Halifax, Canada building a rig similar to the one in the photo above.  The young team walked away with $30,000 they’ll use to develop the next generation. Possible name for it: R2 Weed2.