Next time you buy organic fruits, veggies, or nuts, it might be thanks to a giant weed-whacking robot. Semi-autonomous farming machines are navigating agricultural fields across California and Arizona, identifying weeds and carefully snipping them to avoid herbicides.
The robots are made by FarmWise, a startup co-founded by MIT alumnus Sebastien Boyer. Boyer was researching machine learning and machine vision when he became curious about how those technologies intersect with environmental and agricultural realities. He devised the idea to equip farming equipment with machine vision to enable autonomous weeding. Shortly after, MIT Sandbox—the university’s seed fund—gave him a small stipend to make the idea a reality. With the help of a Stanford alumnus, FarmWise was soon born.
FarmWise unveiled its first robot, the Titan, in 2021. The Titan is a massive hunk of metal that looks like a tractor with an implement on the front, but it doesn’t include a driver’s seat. Instead, an operator directs it using an iPad while walking at the robot’s side. As the Titan traces five or six rows at a time, it uses sensors and machine vision to distinguish weeds from crops. Its cultivation blades quickly respond by creating and executing a plan to snip the weeds within less than an inch of the crops without impacting their integrity.
Before and after the Vulcan’s weeding operation.
Rather than selling the Titan to farms, FarmWise has operated them under a robot-as-a-service (RaaS) model, bringing them to farms for weed-whacking on an as-needed basis. Right now, 15 of the giant robots circulate about 30 farms in the southwestern United States.
Now FarmWise is working toward releasing its second robot: the Vulcan. The Vulcan is far lighter than its predecessor and pulled by a tractor, making it easier for farms to adapt to FarmWise’s system. Like the Titan, this robot uses FarmWise’s Ag Vision System—a “tightly integrated combination of camera, lighting, and computation elements”—to spot weeds and plan its attack without harming actual crops.
Weeds have always been an unfortunate part of agriculture, threatening to overtake crops if not pulled or snipped promptly. To this end, farms typically have two options: use herbicides or hire people to tackle the weeds. But herbicides harm pollinators and potentially humans, and their use precludes the ever-valuable “organic” label. Human labor, meanwhile, can get expensive very quickly. FarmWise hopes to offer a relatively affordable way to address weeds without relying on chemical treatments.