The Future IRL: Robot farmers do the dirty work

Oh, you didn't know farming Robots as a Service (RaaS) was a thing?

The US is facing an agricultural worker shortage, along with aging farm owners, at the same time it juggles demand in food from a global population boom. If we're being blunt, those elements added together would mean farmers and production are straight screwed. Luckily, some engineers and researchers are creating robots that are already beginning to ease the load.

Blue River Technology in Sunnyvale, California is testing "See and Spray"-- machine learning and AI software inside a robotic tractor attachment that aims to change the chemical game. The program can recognize the difference between crops and weeds, then sprays herbicide only on the unwanted plant.

Traditionally, farmers applying herbicide and other chemicals spray the entire field. CEO and co-founder Jorge Heraud says using his AI and machine learning sprayer would cut chemical costs a tenth of the cost. If a mid-sized operation is about 700 acres, only spraying the weeds on a farmer's fields could knock herbicide costs down from about $100,000 to $10,000.

"You can save on the impact that we have to the environment, right now we are frankly overusing chemistry... about 80 percent of the chemicals we use don't end up in the right place," Heraud said.

The machine was tested all over the South this summer, beginning with long sun-brightened slogs on cotton fields in Texas. The engineers at Blue River Technology are proud of their prototype, since it was able to withstand temperatures more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But eventually, Heraud wants the machine to do even more. Rather than just spraying herbicide on an entire plant, he wants to be able to spot treat it with multiple chemicals. That way, the machine only needs to do a single pass to cover all the problems that may ail a solitary plant.

The company got its start in robotics a few years ago, beginning with a lettuce weeding bot that kills off extra lettuce plants in a far more effective way than the previous hand-hoeing only method. That Robot-as-a-Service offering comes at roughly $165 an acre. RaaS might not have the same ring as Software as a Service (SaaS), but it's autonomously coming for us all, soon.

Blue River Technology is by no means the only player in the space. There are so many tech companies or research departments at universities building robots that we couldn't round them all up in this episode of The Future IRL. And that doesn't even begin to address what traditional agricultural machinery companies like John Deere and Case are doing, as they all race towards the goal of full autonomy in farming machines.

As the step-daughter of a Midwestern farmer, I could not be more excited to see what gifts autonomy brings farming next.