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Summary:

Robotics, machine learning, computer vision and precision agriculture are the hot trends behind this startup’s weed-killing robots and their latest funding round.

Readying the lettuce bot to collect pictures.
photo: Blue River Technology

Startup Blue River Technology — the brains behind a weed-pulling, machine-learning lettuce robot — have raised another round of $10 million to hire new scientists and engineers and develop new robotic products for agriculture. Data Collective Venture Capital led the round, which also included Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, and Khosla Ventures.

The company’s lettuce bot rolls slowly (1 mile per hour) down a row of lettuce plants, with a camera pointed at the ground. One set of algorithms determines whether or not the robot is seeing a plant, another set of algorithms determines if the plant is a weed or not (to about 98 or 99 percent accuracy) and a third set of algorithms determines when the correct moment is to inject the deadly dose of fertilizer on the weed.

The computer determines that these plants are lettuce.

The computer determines that these plants are lettuce.

The idea is that the lettuce bot can remove weeds without human labor and do it much more efficiently. It’s also an example of how humans can use machine learning and computer vision to adapt machines to do more and more tasks for humans.

As the population grows to 9 billion by 2050, farms will need to be able to produce more food, more efficiently, for more people. Some of that added efficiency will come from digital tools, like sensors, robotics, big data and drones. So-called “precision agriculture” is an increasingly hot area for startups and investors.

Three-year-old Blue River Technology is also developing its robotics for other row crops, like soy beans and corn.

  1. The argument that the US needs Mexican immigrants for cheap labor to do things like work on farms is totally incorrect. This is not a pro/con-immigration point, it’s simply a fact that cheap labor affects the advancement of farming technology. Some crops would still be too labor intensive to justify growing in the states but those would simply need to be replaced with ones that work well with tech. Unlike manufacturing, which can be done anywhere, you have to grow where the soil, water, and weather are.

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