Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The implications of this technology are staggering


I was astonished to read of the wide-ranging implications of a new laser weeding technology now available to farmers.

Carbon Robotics is now shipping its LaserWeeder to farms around the United States; the machine uses the power of lasers and robotics to rid fields of weeds ... The LaserWeeder can eliminate over 200,000 weeds per hour and offer up to 80% cost savings in weed control. 

. . .

The LaserWeeder is a 20-foot-wide unit comprised of three rows of 10 lasers that are pulled behind a tractor.

Thirty lasers are at work as the unit travels across a field destroying weeds "with millimeter accuracy, skipping the plant and killing the weed," said Mikesell. 

The LaserWeeder "does the equivalent work of about 70 people," he continued.

. . .

The technology "makes for a much more consistent growing process and adds a bunch of health to your yield. You get big yield improvements because you're not damaging the crops with herbicides."

There's more at the link.

Here's a publicity video from Carbon Robotics showing the LaserWeeder in action.

The economic implications for farmers and farm workers are mind-boggling.

  • The workers normally hired to manage weeds in crops won't be needed any more - or, at any rate, far fewer of them.  That's a huge money-saver for farmers, but how many workers will end up unemployed, with no jobs available to replace those they've lost?  What will that do to the unemployment rate overall?
  • I've no idea how much per acre farmers normally spend on herbicides, but it's got to add up.  It probably varies from region to region.  If those expenses are no longer needed, the robotic/laser technology of the LaserWeeder becomes that much more affordable.
  • What will this mean for fertilizers and other input costs?  If crops are no longer threatened by weed incursion, will farmers still need as much fertilizer to obtain high yields, or will the absence of weeds - and the saving of time and money through not having to fight them - mean that less fertilizer can be used, because overall crop productivity will be higher even without it?
  • Can this technology be scaled according to the size of farm and type of crop?  The video above shows a big machine in a big field.  Can a smaller machine be made at a lower cost?  Can smaller farms use it cost-effectively?  Can the technology be adapted to (say) market gardening in greenhouses, rather than fields?  These things may not be possible now, but if they become feasible, they may make even the small-scale, backyard growing of fruit and vegetables much easier and cheaper.  Might we be able to grow a certain proportion of our own food, more practically and affordably than before, thereby reducing our dependence on "Big Ag"?
  • Do these input cost savings mean that farmers (and Big Ag in particular) can/will accept lower prices for their produce, because they'll have lower input costs to grow them?
  • Can this technology be adapted to (say) gardening in greenhouses and back yards, rather than larger fields?  It may not be possible now, but if it becomes feasible, it may make the small-scale, private cultivation of fruit and vegetables much easier and cheaper.  You might see groups of neighbors hiring or buying such technology to share among themselves, at home or in allotments.
  • Over time, this technology may revolutionize the production of food, thereby addressing some of the "woke" or "green" concerns about modern farming practices.  There's a lot of concern about the over-use of farm chemicals and resultant pollution problems (see, for example, the so-called "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by such chemicals draining down the Mississippi River and out to sea).  Could such technology help reduce that problem, by needing less fertilizer and/or herbicides?

Just the thought of no longer having to spend hours weeding in the back yard is enormously tempting.  This will bear watching.



Eaton Rapids Joe said...

No weeds means less fertilizer and water will be required to grow crops.

Precision farming is still in its infancy. Insecticide is now sprayed with the use of optical sensors. Beams of light are sent out and sensors "see" if there is a tree there to spray. They turn on-and-off as the tractor runs down the row, spraying only as high as the tree is tall.

Using Artificial Intelligence, it would not be difficult to "teach" the AI what various weeds look like. For instance, thistles have thorns that are typically lacking chlorophyll. Same deal. A bar with dozens of discrete spray heads can turn on-off as they pass over weeds.

It is not all rosy, though. In less developed countries those "weeds" are often taken home and used as food.

gator141 said...

When you couple this with emerging drone technology which through machine learning will be able to survey the soil conditions down to the square inch such that the farmer will know how much moisture, essential minerals, etc. that each individual plant needs. A new revolution in farming and high yields is coming

Maniac said...

That is, if the Abidin' administration doesn't manifest destiny the farmland beforehand.

Paul said...

It is all Scale over time over cost. Needs to be cheap enough to be used and easy enough to build to scale. Concepts are good. Lets see this again in a few years.

Roger Ritter said...

This will also have an interesting secondary effect. If herbicides like Roundup are no longer needed, then proprietary seeds resistant to Roundup are also no longer needed. Farmers will be able to buy cheaper, more generic seed stock, which may lead to greater crop diversity. That means less likelihood of a catastrophic disease wiping out huge swaths of food crops.

John Fisher said...

I'm looking forward to it being an add on implement to my robotic lawn mower.

Bobo the Hobo said...

I think it’s great but doubt Big Ag - or WER - will allow it.

Anonymous said...

Weed pressure isn't the reason for increased fertilizer use. Weeds are taken care of by various herbicides.
Fertilizer is strictly a yield enhancer. Some strains of hybrid corn, for instance, are kinda "all of nothing"; either you apply X amount of fertilizer or you get "no" yield.
50 years of billion $ ag school research and gene research have created a plant my g-father wouldn't recognize

Anonymous said...

Sounds good, but how does it influence soil microbes? The ones that could possibly improve the soil? Does laser weeding kills soil microbes?

Chris Nelson said...

Seems a bit impractical for larger farms.

Never underestimate the amount of acreage that a good operator driving a modern spray rig with an 80-100' boom can cover in a day.

SiGraybeard said...

Wait... if no one needs Roundup anymore, who will the lawyers go after?

The lawyers will starve to death!

Anonymous said...

At some point, someone will propose adding a second battery of AI target recognition and lasers, to be used to zap pest insects.

Wilbur said...

I'm sure it will take a while to develop and perfect, but a "one stop shopping" machine that runs autonomously 24X7 that laser kills weeds and once the weeds are dead, injects a small squirt of fertilizer into the soil at the plant root, and is rendered less expensive through economies of scale and widespread use, has potential. Think of a 2,000 acre farm with a dozen riding mower-size units weeding and fertilizing 24X7 with the farmer just refueling and refilling the fertilizer tank once or twice a day.

Contract harvesters travel from farm to farm during harvest season to being in the crops, a similar arrangement of "traveling weed-n-feeders" moving a herd of machines between farms could save a lot of expense and reduce the possibility of environmental contamination from overuse of chemicals.

Aercho said...

Interesting, though the proof will be in the usage over less than perfectly flat terrain. If it doesn't get jostled and broken going over a dry dam or terrace, there's some real potential. I'd certainly look into it for my farm if that's the case.

Andrew Smith said...

Imagine being able to turn up to someone's back yard with one of those machines. Weed levels would go down faster than a cheap sub! :-)

Aesop said...

Farming 'droids?

1 point for George Lucas.

Fewer illegals needed to weed crops?

40,000,000 pts. for USA.

Will said...

IIRC, the BEST natural farmers, The Amish, have ~75% crop output compared to neighboring farms that use pesticides and other chemicals.
That is the target for organic farms. 'Course, the Amish won't use this laser system as it is too high-tech for their beliefs.

Maniac said...

"The lawyers will starve to death!"

No big loss.

tsquared said...

I saw a demo on this a month ago.

Carbon Robotics is the cooperate entity leading this market. The initial cost of the equipment and its ability to only service 4 acres per hour are its big drawbacks. The good thing is the weedier can run 24 hours having only to stop for refueling.

Anonymous said...

This will be implemented for suburban lawns, even easier, just input the to keep grass strains and burn everything else.

Aesop said...

Tell the whole story:
The Amish are limited to how much food they can produce walking behind a plow-laden draft horse.
If we return 80% of Americans to farming every scrap of arable land, and breed another 200M draft horses, their approach is viable on a national scale.

You'd also have Civil War-era medicine, watching grass grow and making babies (or watching the young'uns make them for those too young or too old to participate) would comprise the chief forms of entertainment, stagecoach would be "fast" travel, and there would be a pressing need for young orphans to carry the mail by horse from St. Joseph to San Franciso each day.

You might like that world, but clearly, 295 million of your friends and neighbors do not share your sentiment.

Chris Nelson said...

4 acres an hour is ridiculously slow.

I called up some family members that farm. (I spent many summers on various spray equipment in their cotton fields. Also chopped weeds by hand in a variety of crops.)

On a large, mostly flat, farm on the plains, a modern spray rig can cover over 1,000 areas in a single day, depending on the crop. If you run after dark, you can get 40% more coverage. The limiting factor is water, which can be trucked to the mix trailer in the field. Or you can tap a well on irrigated land.

Since you have a limited time window after planting grains and pulses, and spraying takes a lot less time and manpower than planting or harvesting, most farms have their own spray rigs. Also spot spraying in cotton either requires sensors or human based rigs.

Almost all modern spray rigs use GPS to avoid over-spray and waste. All farm equipment can be GPS tracked along with additional data like drill performance, fert amounts, yields, etc...

If you don't have friends or family in the ag business, I can recommend following some serious large operators on YouTube for an entire crop season, or just catch the highlights.