Variable weed and forage rate has been around for decades, but has it lowered your input costs or given you higher returns? Have you made your cropping system more sustainable?
New computer vision tools about to hit the farm do all of these things and more if farmers adopt them. The technology promises to dramatically reduce herbicide use just as food company supply chains are shifting to more innovative ways that promote soil health and protect groundwater.
“What we do is three things: digitize or index the crop; keep track of it over time; and work on the crop with millimeter-accurate inputs” green robots CEO and Co-Founder Gabi Sibley. “By applying robotics and machine learning on the farm, we can unlock value that was previously unavailable, not to mention reduce labor issues and slow input costs that keep crossing the ceiling.”
Farm Futures got a glimpse of the Verdant machine at corporate headquarters in Hayward, CA, an industrial warehouse filled with hardware and software engineers, each feasting on computer screens with the attentive detail of a surgeon in an operating room.
Nearby is their object of interest – a multi-platform robotic field tool that digitizes farm fields down to the millimeter. Verdant can use environmentally friendly chemicals to protect crops and their fertility or diffuse lasers to eliminate weeds, reducing herbicide use by up to 95%.
It has machines working on specialty crops now with another multi-tasking commercial machine scheduled for orchards next year. Large-scale organic crops loom, followed by acres of conventional corn and soybeans. The plan is to take all of the microcomputer modeling techniques hidden under the 20-foot-wide Verdant machine and crush it to the size of a soda can with several units spread across a 120-foot-long arm, each with its own brain.
“The main aspect of technology to focus on is computer vision – it will fundamentally change the way we farm today,” explains co-founder Curtis Garner. “Computer vision will show each plant and its exact needs, from early detection of diseases or weeds to a dose of fertilizer. Machine learning cameras inside this tool can distinguish between crops and weeds and can be removed with either small jets of herbicide or lasers. They can use herbicides Fungi and micronutrients in the right place at the right time.”
Verdant thinks big. Its goal is to become an “innovative robotics technology company that sustainably farms as much of humanity as possible,” says Sibley, a software engineer and robotics scientist. “Sustainable agriculture is the mission statement; technology is the tool that got us there, to do something we couldn’t do before, by providing a millimeter-wide variable rate.
“50 or 100 years from now, the story as we look back is not, ‘Hey, we’re Alina ag; It’s ‘automating physical labor,’ says Sibley. ‘There will be an independent revolution and it may take a long time, but we can get value now as part of a much larger arc.’
As the machine moves over a field, the tool’s lights and cameras create images to develop a double AI record of each field, modeling each plant on each square foot of soil. It generates a new image in each field pass so images can be stacked on top of each other to develop a season-round snapshot of fertility or weed control performance. If you watch the Verdant machine at dusk, you’ll see cameras or lasers flashing beneath the canopy, which the founders jokingly called “Eye of Sauron” (this is a Lord of the Rings reference for you non-Tolkien fan). Cameras take lightning fast snapshots.
“We can digitize the crop on a scale like never before, allowing us to uncover a value that didn’t exist before,” says Sibley. “We index the crop, trace each leaf, and work on it with millimeter precision to guide how this plant grows.
“Google indexes the web, but we index physical space by creating a digital twin of the farm. You have to take advantage of computers to do the work. This then unleashes the power of computation, the power that farmers have in their hands: search, compare, link, and influence. on something, and measure the results.”
Company leaders say the machine will ease a growing labor shortage; At least in specialized crops.
“Farmers now face an existential crisis between labor availability and labor costs,” says Garner. “Labour costs are up 14% year over year, and they’re not slowing down. We’re here to help farmers reduce that cost, bring them savings, and help them save labour.
“The robot does a perfect job every time,” he says. “She never gets tired and never sleeps.”
As the company moves to large-area crops, the focus will be more on paying revenue rather than solving labor issues.
“For broad crops in the Midwest, you usually have a family or 3 to 8 people who can handle a large amount of land,” he notes. “This device will be able to provide a high level of data like never before.”
Build it better
The Verdant machine is very different from the traditional methods of managing and controlling crop development. First, the company believes that its technology removes guesswork from the corresponding applications and results.
“There are a whole lot of things you can do when you deliver atoms, from lasers to chemicals and micronutrients or fungicides,” Sibley says. “You track what you do over time, chart actions, and then compare the plan to what has been achieved.”
Early prototypes focused on releasing tiny jets of chemicals into the blossoms of apple trees in orchards, but that only gave them two opportunities per growing season to perfect the technique. Verdant’s technical team needed to switch to a crop that would give them more opportunities for “scar tissue” to grow, so they built a machine to produce the weeds and feed the carrots.
“If we hadn’t switched from apples to carrots, we might have died because we weren’t getting the repetition,” Sibley says. “Professional crop guys came knocking on the door and we couldn’t refuse. The technology is complicated. We have to invent and solve puzzles all day long. The first few times you go out and it doesn’t work, you have to figure out why, and eventually it works reliably.”
The growers who partnered with Verdant for testing loved what they saw — which may be why the company is locking in service agreements to run their machines on thousands of plant acres for five years.
“Our ranch partners pull us in — we thought it would be the other way around,” Sibley says. “Now we have multiple machines outside and we have people who want more. This is a good problem.”
However, don’t expect to see one on sale at a lot of dealers. The Verdant machine is so loaded with software that it makes sense to offer it as a service with routine digital updates. “Otherwise it will be a paperweight within a year,” says Sibley.
This does not mean that this new machine will be difficult to use. far from it.
“We built a system that farmers can use to teach the machine to do new jobs they haven’t seen before, so you don’t have to have a computer scientist out there to do it in the field,” says Sibley. “That separates the operations from the engineering team and allows our business to expand. We have a machine that can To be used by a farmer or agronomist to perform new jobs without telephoning from home to headquarters.”
The technology fits well with the California specialty crop field. Time will tell if the same technology can be adopted in the corn and soybean fields of the Midwest.
A rocket scientist and a tomato farmer walk into a bar…
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Gabe Sibley is what they call the world of robotics. In his previous life, he worked on self-driving cars and lent his hand to building the Mars rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yes, he is literally a rocket scientist.
Meanwhile, Curtis Garner ran a tomato processing and worked on a California farm, where he saw firsthand the devastating effects of a shortage of farm labor. He started thinking about how automation could solve the problem. Garner met people in the aerospace and robotics industries, and began looking for investors.
Which led him to Sibley.
“We met at a bar to see what we had in common. At first we just wanted to make sure we weren’t psychopaths, and that was a good fit,” he joked. “The idea of working with someone like Gabe was too wild, too crazy, and too fun to miss. I would kick myself if I said no.”
Sibley had little firsthand knowledge of ag, but he soon saw parallels between farming and the Mars Rover Project. His first impression? “We knew what we were working on needed precision, so we could work in dirty, dangerous places, and og like that,” he says.
Garner and Sibley talked about the labor shortage and how AI and automation can help. In the end, the two entrepreneurs, along with co-founder Lawrence Ibaria (who also spent time developing self-driving cars), decided that their differences would become their strength.
“The diverse work experience that is not traditionally done in AG is a huge part of our success,” Garner says.
They went on a six-month listening tour to hear farmers share pain points, “in an effort to spark their imaginations but also learn to understand their problems,” says Sibley.
What the cultivators told them was shocking to say the least.
“Farmers were saying, ‘We’ve got these[yield]maps for good,’ what are we going to do with them?” Garner recalls. ”
“Farmers globally said we already had a lot of data — help us understand the data and help us figure out what to do with it,” he recalls. So we focused on actions that can provide immediate value. We take all the visualization and machine learning and all the brains and clip it to the back of the tractor, because the tractor driver is the last job a farmer wants to get rid of. Once you automate tasks at 2 to 3 mph, the real value is how you impact the crop with better returns, and how you get more for less. “The farmers asked for it, so that’s our focus.”
This early research became a beacon for Verdant’s development. “I said, ‘Imagine you see the need for fertilizer or weed control and you can put the right chemical in the right place at the right time,'” Sibley recalls. “We talked about what it was worth. It was an aha moment because Curtis helped us understand agronomy and we helped him with technology.”
Which just goes to show, you never know what might happen when two people meet at a bar.
“Curtis is the better half of this business – he’s the client,” concludes Sibley. “I’ve built a business before, and we have to build what the customer wants.”
Learn more about Verdant Robotics:
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