Imagine a future of foods free of harmful chemicals — a future where crops still grow strong and dense in the absence of choking weeds, but bees and other pollinators buzz and frolic among the crops. Over at Clint Brauer’s farm outside of Cheney, Kansas, that future is very nearly a reality, thanks to a swarm of autonomous robots.
Well, maybe not a swarm, swarm. But there’s like, ten of the little guys. Just look at ’em, they’re super adorable!
Brauer is one of the co-founders of Greenfield Robotics. More than that, however, Brauer is a farm kid, and his experiences in the tech and digital worlds eventually made their way back to his family’s farm — a farm that is very much on the cutting edge of chemical-free farming.
Over on his farm’s “about” page, Brauer writes that he went back to his farming roots with a mission. He wanted, “to get the chemicals out of our food. Along the way we learned about an entirely new system of farming that leverages the power of nature to improve the productivity of soil and sequester greenhouse gases … the challenge,” he writes, “was that carbon farming didn’t scale without heavy use of agri-chemicals. Until we came along.”
Each configuration of the 140 lb. robots has its own name — Tom, Dick, Harry, and Wilma — and also has its own job. “Tom starts off the process by rolling through the field and mapping it. That information is uploaded to Wilma. Then Wilma tells Dick, the weed zapper, to get to work,” explains Sarra Mander, of the Small Robot Company, who initially built the robots.
As put to use by Brauer, Dick electrically zaps young weeds as they start to emerge between crops, effectively removing them without hurting the local insects like pesticides do. The robots also out-perform mechanical solutions like tractors pulling plows or rototillers, which can disturb the delicate microbial life of a farm’s soil, leading to decreased yields, decreased species diversity, and other environmental problems.
As a non-farmer, however, I feel like the first question we ask should be: Why the focus on the weeds? Because that’s a farm’s biggest problem. “You got to start with weeds. It’s the number one thing that farmers are fighting,” says Brauer. “I’m a fourth-generation farmer. Easily half, if not more, of my time farming and certainly a huge portion of my expenses are spent on weed control.”
That huge investment in time and expenses may be enough to make Brauer’s mechanized weed-killers a viable thing, even if at first glance, they seem like a much more expensive solution than spraying chemicals. And that’s good, because according to Brauer, most farmers don’t use chemicals because they want to. “The dependence on weed-killing chemicals is nothing but a sliding-scale deal with the devil.”
Avoiding that devil, keeping biodiversity up, and reducing the amount of harmful chemicals that farmers’ kids and animals are exposed to seems like more than enough reason to bring robotics into farming — but that’s just my opinion (and Brauer’s, probably). What do you guys think? Will robots eventually overtake Monsanto in the weed-killing business? Would that be a good thing, or a great thing? Scroll on down to the comments section and let us know.
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