Robotic weeding might sound distant and foreign, but it now sits at the doorstep of the Salinas Valley.
Come March, Blue River Technology, a Mountain View-based startup company, plans to open a sales office in Salinas to showcase its robotic lettuce weeder and thinner —the “Lettucebot.” Co-founder Jorge Heraud spoke downtown last week at the Salinas Valley Weed School where more than 100 farmers, crop consultants and seed-sellers gathered for a series of weeding lectures.
“The technology is getting better and better,” said Greg Mirassou, president of the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Association of Pest Control Advisers, who seemed hopeful for Salinas Valley agriculture after attending the event.
While robots are not yet cost-effective, he said, they could soon become more so if the availability of farm labor continues to decrease, as it has in recent years, partly in response to tightening U.S. immigration policy.
“All around the valley, this is the first year I’ve seen signs up requesting workers in a long time,” said Richard Smith, farm adviser at the UC Cooperative Extension in Monterey County, who organized last week’s Weed School.
Steve Fennimore, a weed specialist at the UC Cooperative Extension in Salinas, spoke at last week’s conference. He predicts the Salinas Valley could see a serious labor crunch within the next two years, and agreed that robots offer a promising solution.
“I’m trying to provide some leadership as best I can,” said Fennimore, who has been coordinating with members of the agri-robotic industry to try to make this work for Salinas Valley growers. “These technologies don’t spring out of the ground. You need the resources to test them.”
In Europe, where labor is even scarcer and costlier, the ag robotic industry has become more established over the past several years. In the U.S., only about five companies nationwide have started marketing products. California’s Blue River Technology seems to be at the cutting edge.
Heraud’s team has trained its machine to recognize lettuce in the same way sophisticated airport security devices recognize human faces. Their product is equipped with a camera hooked up to a computer that recognizes the lettuce from an archive of nearly one million lettuce photos. The computer is hooked up to a dispenser that releases concentrated fertilizer on target plants. The fertilizer burns and kills those plants, and then soaks into the ground and benefits the surrounding crops.
The prototype is designed not for weeding but for lettuce thinning, or eradicating plants to make room for growing roots. Though manual thinning costs are relatively low, accounting for only about 5 percent of total labor costs, Blue River Technology saw this as a logical pilot product.
“We decided to start with lettuce thinning because it’s a year-round problem and there are not many other alternatives,” said Heraud. “And it is a little bit simpler than weeding.”
At the moment, the technology only handles one bed at a time and costs roughly $100,000, on par with its competitors. In the long-term, the company hopes to improve cost effectiveness by expanding to four beds at a time, and to increase speed. Eventually, it would like to expand to weeding.
But, as the cost-effectiveness of robotics improves, should farmworkers worry about the fate of their jobs?
Mirassou does not think so. In fact, he believes robotics will benefit farmworkers. Labor needs are plentiful, and robotic techniques call for more specialized and higher paying positions. In Salinas, job openings with the Blue River Technology sales office should crop up in March.
“I don’t think there is a downside to it,” said Mirassou. “This is something that is coming along. It’s like GPS; when it started it was no good, but now we can’t live without it.”
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