‘Like science fiction,’ Seattle startup sends laser-equipped robots to zap weeds on farmland

Joan S. Reed

When vegetable farmer Shay Myers needs to weed 30 acres of organic onions, he’s typically hired a crew of around 30 people for a day of work that can be tedious, including sometimes using pocket knives to carve away weeds around the onions. This season, he hopes to use two robots instead.

Myers is an early user of a Seattle-based robotics company’s “autonomous weeder,” a tractor-sized machine that uses lasers to kill weeds.

The first sight of the machine in a field of crops “was like science fiction,” said Myers, who grows hundreds of acres of onions, asparagus, sweet potatoes and other vegetables in Idaho and Oregon. He expects the machines “should pay for themselves in two or three years.”

Seattle-based Carbon Robotics this week revealed the latest iteration of its nine-foot-long robot designed to weed fields of row crops, replacing human labor or herbicides. With 12 cameras and eight lasers, the machine zaps the unwanted plants at up to 5 miles per hour. 

A handful of farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have ordered and received the robots, said Carbon Robotics CEO Paul Mikesell. Farmers in California and New Mexico have also placed orders, he said. 

Automation has become a growing presence as farmers across the country face an ongoing labor shortage fueled by American immigration policy and other factors. 

Over the next decade, the Western Growers Association aims to automate half of the harvest of specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables and nuts. A Florida company has been developing a strawberry-picking robot. At Washington State University Tri-Cities, scientists are working on an apple-picking robot — an idea some farmworker advocates met with skepticism. 

Edgar Franks, political director at the union Familias Unidas por La Justicia, based in Burlington, Washington, said that, generally speaking, the rise of automation is concerning. Farm work is grueling “because of the exploitation of labor,” he said.

“From our point of view, it’s all about labor control and cutting labor costs down…What’s going to happen to the workers who made the industry so profitable, all of a sudden to be kicked out?” Franks said.

Myers said it has become more difficult to hire people for work like weeding. This year, 80{13aab5633489a05526ae1065595c074aeca3e93df6390063fabaebff206207ec} of the migrant workers he planned to hire on temporary H-2A visas are delayed at the U.S.-Mexico border, he said.

“It’s harder to find people to do that work every single year,” he said. 

Mikesell declined to provide an exact cost of the robot, but said its price is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, comparable to the cost of some tractors

The weeding robot, manufactured in Mukilteo, uses GPS technology to stay within a geofence at the edge of the field. Cameras underneath the robot scan the ground and artificial intelligence identifies the weeds among the crops. 

Then a carbon dioxide laser (the same kind used to cut metal) “targets the weeds for destruction,” in the words of the company’s website. The company says the machine can weed 15-20 acres per day. 

Developing the machine meant troubleshooting to ensure that the lasers and robot could withstand hot and freezing temperatures, plus rain, dust and lightning – to match the “general ruggedness of farm equipment,” Mikesell said.

Mikesell created the robotics startup after founding the data-storage company Isilon and later working as director of infrastructure engineering at Uber. Carbon Robotics has raised $8.9 million, Mikesell said.

For better or worse, the robot won’t be available for your backyard garden any time soon.

“That’s a ways off,” Mikesell said. Even at the company’s current level, he said, “we have more requests for machines than we can fulfill.”

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