August 19, 2020

Can automation eliminate the need for pesticides?

Greenfield robotics wants to eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides entirely, by using robots as a means of controlling and enabling the growth of healthy crops.

Can automation eliminate the need for pesticides?

Greenfield Robotics thinks so

There are a growing range of agricultural robotics companies offering automated solutions for farmers to deal with pests and disease.

Most of these focus on precision farming: using technology to only administer pesticides or herbicides where they’re needed, potentially enabling a dramatic reduction in use of these applications overall. This would enable both reduced operating costs as well as a reduced environmental impact.

Greenfield robotics wants to go further. They want to eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides entirely, by using robots as a means of controlling and enabling the growth of healthy crops.

Normally I smirk when I see or hear about people talk about “getting the chemicals out of our food” as Greenfield aspires to do. The problem with such an assertion is that it fails to acknowledge that water is a chemical, as is every literal thing we might eat, drink or touch. What they really mean is additional chemicals, especially those which might pose harm to use or the environment.

Greenfield Robotics is partly a response to the current state of organic farming, and the need to use technology to enable such farms to scale. Regenerative farming and permaculture are gaining ground among producers and consumers, but industrial farmers have been hesitant to adopt such methods. Robots may be the bridge that allows regenerative practices to scale.

In particular Greenfield wants to build robots that enable no till organic row crops, as these robots could literally patrol the field, going up and down the row, identifying and removing weeds.

No till farming does away with ploughing or digging up the field each year and instead relies upon heavy use of chemicals and pesticides. The latter is better on the soil but the former is better when fighting weeds. Greenfield wants to encourage no till without chemicals by having robots take up the battle against unwanted plants.

Clint Brauer’s farm outside of Cheney, Kansas, could be described as Old MacDonald’s Farm plus robots. Along with 5,500 square feet of vegetable-growing greenhouses, classes teaching local families to grow their food, a herd of 105 sheep, and Warren G—a banana-eating llama named after the rapper—is a fleet of ten, 140-pound, battery-operated robots.
Brauer, the co-founder of Greenfield Robotics, grew up a farm kid. He left for the big city tech and digital world, but eventually made his way back to the family farm. Now, it’s the R&D headquarters for the Greenfield Robotics team, plus a working farm.
When Brauer returned to his agricultural roots, he did so with a purpose: to prove that food could be grown without harmful chemicals and by embracing soil- and planet-friendly practices. He did just that, becoming one of the premier farmers growing vegetables in Kansas without pesticides, selling to local markets, grocery store chains, and chefs.

In our ongoing research on technology, automation, and agriculture, we’re finding a similar refrain or scenario: the outsider or prodigal son returning is where the innovation begins. Yes it requires entrenched multi-generational farmers to be effective, but there’s something to be said for critical distance. In this case wanting to connect the largely urban market for organic foods with farmers who might otherwise be focused on cash crops grown with ample chemicals.

The Greenfield robotic solution is based on a simple idea: Keep mowing.
When Brauer started thinking about which weed to target first, pigweed was an obvious first enemy. The pain-in-the-ass weed, also known as Palmer amaranth, claims the annoying weed holy grail — it is invasive, adaptive, and herbicide-resistant. A single plant, undeterred, can grow over six feet tall and produce up to half a million tiny seeds. It distributes easily, and young seedlings continue to germinate even after the cash crop is planted. Farmers have to keep working to get rid of it even after their crop starts growing, otherwise, it quickly takes over. Because it has become glyphosate-resistant, desperate farmers have increasingly turned to more aggressive chemical solutions.
On a whim, Brauer threw a mower on his tractor and took it to a field that had been overtaken by the weed. He discovered that if mowed repeatedly, a few inches off the ground, the pigweed would eventually give up the fight and die.
The robots from Greenfield Robotics weigh only 140lbs, and look like thin, upright vacuums. The perk of creating a small robot is that it is able to go out even in muddy conditions to mow weeds. Brauer said that even after fields received 3 inches of rain, Greenfield’s robots are able to go out and do their job, while a spray rig would easily get stuck in the mud.
These petite robots are also intelligent, and have the ability to sense depth and crop rows. They essentially function as miniature lawn mowers, eliminating weeds as they travel up and down crop rows. As Greenfield Robotics continues to grow, their goal is to use a fleet of 10 robots to knock out 100 acres in one day.

It is both ironic and kind of hilarious that the solution to more environmentally sustainable agriculture is just a smart lawnmower. Rather a robot that knows what to chop and what not to chop may be the secret to feeding the world?

Should big chemical producers be concerned that their business may be put in jeopardy by automated weed removal? Perhaps they can find solace in that the robots are not yet able to kill the insects, although that’s where animals play a role.

The company also makes a compelling argument regarding the anxiety around automation and work, with their particular emphasis on getting rid of pesticides:

In 2020, before the pandemic really hit, Greenfield Robotics was able to secure some investments, that should take it forward into the near future, and give them a bit of room to develop their bots.

The real question will be whether farmers are interested or able to afford them.

These are just one of many robots focused on weed or pest management. We’ll focus on others in future issues.

Finally here’s an interview with Clint Brauer, one of the co-founders:

Ottawa Valley Smart Farms