Go ahead and picture it in your head, if only for a second: the picturesque Iowa countryside (or whichever Corn Belt state you prefer). Vibrant, rolling acre-upon-acre of downright handsomely-sown corn and soybeans, all being tended by teams of fully-autonomous robotic “farmers.” Sound pretty far-fetched?
Not if you’re Blue River Technology, Mountain View, CA, CEO Jorge Heraud.
You see, Heraud has attended this particular rodeo before. The former head of engineering and precision agriculture at Trimble Navigation was intimately involved in the early development of the first automatic steering products in agriculture. Heraud would meet with interested farmers throughout the Midwest for ride-and-drives, tell them they needed auto-steer on their tractor and then listen to them tell him that he’s crazy.
“It’s just very satisfying to see a technology – I remember many of the farmers I first talked with about auto steer thought I was talking Star Wars – it’s tremendously satisfying to see that technology come to market and become standard,” he says. “And I think you’re going to see the same type of situation with robotics in agriculture.”
Heraud’s outfit is looking to integrate what he calls “computer vision” and robotic technologies into large-scale row-crop agriculture, and they’ve already made some headway in that regard in California’s lettuce industry with robotic lettuce thinning technology.
Blue River’s first commercialized product, the lettuce thinning “bots” use advanced imaging technology to decide on a plant-by-plant basis which plants are ideal for yield and which aren’t. Blue River already has placed the technology with a few select ag retailers in California, and predictably they are quite impressed.
“They’re just blown away by how quickly the machine can go through the lettuce fields and still do a quality job,” says Heraud.
Heraud and Blue River’s next project is finding a way of integrating that technology, currently in the concept stages, into the corn and soybean markets, specifically in the areas of plant breeding and weed control.
“Our motto as a company is ‘Every Plant Counts’ and nowhere in agriculture is that statement more applicable than in plant breeding,” he says. “Every plant has a different genetic makeup and you’re trying to understand the phenotype of each plant. This technology would help breeders make better breeding decisions, as well as make the task more efficient.”H
Heraud foresees the Phenobots, as they are being called while in development, automatically scanning entire fields on a plant-by-plant basis, and then reporting real-time agronomic data such as nitrogen content, water stress, plant height potential and other ideal information for plant breeders.
Additionally, Blue River is hoping to use robotics to one day make a dent in the resistant weed epidemic, although he also characterizes that technology as “very early stage”.
“We’re hoping to develop a weed application for robotics in the next couple years, where basically the robot will recognize healthy crops from weeds and selectively remove the weeds without spraying the crops,” Heraud says. “Instead of having to use selective herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops, and spraying chemicals on those crops, you only paint the problematic weeds.”
Having recently received a healthy dose of venture capital funding (to the tune of $10 million), Heraud and Blue River seem poised to help lead the robotic revolution in agriculture.
“There is tremendous opportunity right now, to be the first to get this technology right,” he says. “It’s going to have to operate fast and efficiently, and it’s going to have to be competitive to traditional commercial application in terms of cost and speed.”