The blistering West Texas heat rocketing towards triple digits, the affable cotton grower trudged across his dusty field and approached the Silicon Valley ag tech guy.
“I didn’t recognize you with that hat on,” he joked before offering a hearty handshake, as Jorge Heraud’s Blue River Technology team prepped in the background.
Even without implicitly stating such, we all know the prevailing thoughts of most folks that make their livelihood in production agriculture — especially true in a place like Lubbock, TX, far from the big budgets and even bigger ideas coming out of the Bay Area: farmers wear the hats, Silicon Valley ag tech guys don’t.
Farmers know agriculture, Silicon Valley ag tech guys know computers.
After spending a day with Heraud’s team in late June, as the outfit was mentally and physically locked into the midst of an intense month-long Texas cotton R&D campaign for its yet-to-be-released See & Spray Technology, it’s clear that perhaps that dichotomy doesn’t quite fit the team Heraud and his polished business development counterpart, Ben Chostner, have assembled at Blue River.
“I know that a lot of farmers, a lot of people in mainstream ag, they think what those VC guys are doing out in California, that’s a whole other world,” Heraud, Co-Founder and CEO at Blue River, admits over a quick lunch at the local Dairy Queen. “And I get that, but I’d tell them that we’re here now in row crops, we started in cotton because that’s ground zero for Palmer amaranth.
“We want to show the world that this is a technology that works in more than just vegetables and little things, but it can work in big things.”
A Stanford-educated former Trimble executive, Heraud & Co. have perhaps the most intriguing long-term view on production agriculture and how technologies like the See & Spray rig will revolutionize plant management, making large-scale farming infinitely more granular than what we see in today’s zone and grid management-based climate.
“We have the ability to see every single plant, and we have the ability to act on every plant,” Heraud explains. “That opens the doors to doing a lot of things; the first step we are taking is herbicides. The long-term vision is doing the right thing for every plant, and that includes fertilizer, fungicide, biopesticides, whatever it may be. Making sure every single plant uses as much as it can.”
In ramp-up mode for 2018’s promised See & Spray commercial debut, the Blue River campaign I witnessed in Lubbock is being implemented on two fronts.
First and foremost, two of Blue River’s eight-row R&D See & Spray rigs (commercial units will likely feature 12 or 16 row configuration) are covering cotton acres daily as the team further refines the product. Alternating between spraying actual chemistries (dicamba, paraquat, etc.) for area growers and blue ink for demonstration on some fields, the end goal according to Chostner is to be spraying at least 98% of the weeds, while leaving at least 95% of the cotton crop untouched. Another goal is to have the machine spraying at between 6-8 mph; right now it’s around 4 mph.
Having walked behind the See & Spray rig as it traversed the field down in Lubbock, drawing neat blue lines of herbicide on weeds in similar fashion to an ink jet printer (and leaving the cotton plants relatively clean), my first thought was simply ‘Wow, we know farmers love straight lines, and they are going to LOVE how precise and neat these applications are.’
Assembled on an Orthman 7×7 toolbar, See & Spray features multi-camera arrays (front and rear facing sensors) and dedicated NVIDIA GPUs for each individual row unit, which provide the computer vision and deep learning (training a computer to involuntarily act on what it sees) power, while custom-designed nozzles (that convey in a shower head-like fashion) only initiate when directly over a weed. The implement will be color-neutral and, although currently being run via laptop from the cab, plans for a dedicated mobile app are on the books.
“Agriculture today is in a state of mechanization — doing the same thing over and over,” Heraud opines. “What we want to do is bring agriculture to the next stage, which is automation. Having an implement have sensors and computers so that these implements — instead of just doing the same thing over and over — they can sense different things, and depending on what it senses, act differently in fractions of a second. We call them smart implements.”
The second front in Blue River’s R&D project is its weed image collection process, which powers the artificial intelligence embedded in the See & Spray rig. Having undertaken the same process weeks before across cotton acres in the Mississippi Delta, during our visit two Blue River team members pushed a dual wheeled array of down facing cameras and GPS sensors across weedy cotton fields, capturing tens of thousands of geo-tagged images of weeds that, when sent back to Blue River’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA, will be used to develop the weed identification algorithms that allow the technology to discern between a crop and a weed.
One day Heraud and Chostner and Co. hope to drive through the countryside and look out from their pickup truck, seeing See & Spray rigs executing on every field, applying on average about one-twentieth the herbicide that today’s tolerant-trait cropping system typically use.
“Even to the consumers it makes a lot of sense,” Chostner argues. “Why do we need to put herbicide on all the crops that we grow? Why not just put it on the weeds? And it makes sense to the farmers, too. You get better weed control, and you use less material. We think that it just makes a lot of sense, especially as this technology emerges, to try and apply it to make every plant count, really.”
EDITOR’S UPDATE (08/05/2017)
I ran into and briefly chatted with Ben Chostner at InfoAg 2017 in late-July, about a month after my visit with the Blue River team in Lubbock. Chostner shared that the team had wrapped up its summer R&D efforts in Lubbock and returned to home based in Sunnyvale, CA, and they were pleased with their progress throughout the summer and the current capabilities of the machine, and things are still on schedule for a 2018 commercialization of See & Spray technology in cotton.