FarmWise, an agricultural robotics and IoT startup has raised a $5.7 million seed round to commercialize the company’s automated weeding robot.
FarmWise has developed a weeding robot that uses computer vision to identify weeds and robotics to remove them from vegetable farms without herbicides. While removing weeds with a mechanical motion similar to a garden hoe, the robot also gathers data about the plants.
“The machine can drive itself through the field and use cameras and computer vision to understand the field. It can analyze each plant, gathering info such as size, health status, and growth stage,” FarmWise founder and CEO Sebastien Boyer told AgFunderNews.
“Farmwise is using the latest advances in computer vision and deep learning to build an autonomous platform that not only gathers crop-level data but also carries out actual tasks such as precision weeding and thinning, which are crucial to sustainable organic farming. The confluence of data-sensing, machine intelligence, and robotic actuation being smartly applied to an agricultural setting by a fantastic pair of entrepreneurs is what got us excited about partnering with them,” said Mario Malave of Playground Ventures.
Boyer said that he and his cofounder and CTO Thomas Palomares became interested in weeding because it is at the intersection of the farm labor crisis and moving away from chemical applications in agriculture.
Palomares has a family history of farming in France and he and Boyer have been working with growers in California for a year to hone their user interface.
‘We want to have a user interface as simple as a washing machine. On the inside, we want the machine to be as smart as possible. On the outside, it should be as simple as possible,” said Boyer.
The only element that needs to be entered by the user is a GPS “geofence” so that the machine does not go beyond the field it is supposed to be weeding. The rest of the robot’s activities are self-directed.
“One of the things that got us excited was that this is something that farms need to do throughout the year multiple times. so there’s always a use case as opposed to a picking robot,” Niki Pezeshki, vice president at Felicis Ventures.
Pezeshki said that finding a pesticide-free and cheaper method of weeding could be a game-changer for organic growers and consumers.
“Taking out herbicides really resonated with us too. If you can crack that nut in a scalable way that won’t make organic food more expensive, even better,” said Pezeshki.
Boyer is confident that the economics will work in growers’ favor sooner rather than later in part due to targetting vegetable farmers, who generally benefit from higher profit margins and suffer from higher labor costs — setting FarmWise further apart from well-known automated “see and spray” weeding robotics startup Blue River Technologies, which was acquired by John Deere earlier this year.
“The cost of weeding for vegetables on a per acre basis is between two and five times higher than for commodities. That makes our solution more economical at the beginning,” said Boyer, who anticipates selling the robots as a service, at least initially.
FarmWise investor Valley Oak Investments is also invested in Farmers Business Network, biological crop input company Marrone Bio Innovations, food delivery startup Caviar, dairy management software platform Farmeron, ag biotech company Hazel Technologies, and food waste reduction software Spoiler Alert.
Bruce Leak, inventor of QuickTime and cofounder of WebTV has joined FarmWises’s board of directors.
Farmwise is currently signing pilot contracts with some of the largest vegetable growers in CA beginning in summer 2018, according to Boyer.