Robots On Duty For Plant Breeding

Rolling between the rows of standing crops, robots are demonstrating their value in improving upcoming yields. Plant scientists have found opportunity in deploying robots to collect data to drive their product development decisions. 

Startup EarthSense says in 2019 its 40 robots collected more than 10 Terrabytes of data, and the company will more than double that number of units this year to close to 100 robots. 

“In our earliest pilot trials in 2018 we tested our crop breeding robots with universities and seed companies,” explains EarthSense co-founder and CEO Chinmay Soman. “We are on an upward and onward trajectory as people have been collecting a lot of data with a lot of crops.” 

EarthSense has worked closely with more than a handful of seed companies since 2017, including Corteva and Ag Reliant parent company KWS. Soman says one of the company’s greatest achievements to date has been cultivating these partnerships with seed companies–some of which are going on four years–and how their technology has shown value in product development. 

“Agriculture starts with the seed,” he says. “In helping make better seed, we are helping make a better foundation for agriculture. And we have found a niche in delivering really unique data to make the crop breeding process more effective and cost less.” 

In the field, the robots are collecting data and taking high resolution images under the crop canopy. 
He also says EarthSense’s autonomous technology and software development has benefited from these partnerships as it’s been a ground-truthing program in how the robots could fit onto individual farmers’ fields. 

“Our robots have improved in how they navigate in-field obstacles and what can make them better field scouts. We’re also testing the platform for applications—cover crop seeding, mechanical weeding, and precisely positioning concentrated crop protection products.” Soman.

While the company continues to evaluate opportunities and refine its product testing, the team is encouraged because the work can be difficult. 

“Doing robotics in ag is not an easy problem. The grand vision of deploying robots in a field and doing useful thigs for the grower---we’ll get there and we’ll get there in the next few years. But in making that happen, there are interesting things that can go wrong in ag and in real world field settings,” Soman says. “We continue to be excited about solving these difficult problems because we know the benefits to society will be worth all the effort.” 

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