Today, farmers have a number of options for cultivating their crops. Herbicides and genetically modified crops are one cultivation method that has increasingly gone out of fashion due primarily to market pressure from consumers for organically grown crops.
For organic-certified farms, the only option for cultivation is to use a mechanical means of removing weeds. However, mechanical weed removal can be labor-intensive and expensive, just one of the reasons why organically grown food is more expensive to produce.
A number of ag-tech companies are developing new technologies to support the cultivation process. Some of the innovations include selective herbicide application, such as the John Deere See and Spray technology. FarmWise has offers mechanical cultivation in their weeding as a service solution using the FarmWise Titan solution.
A smart implement becomes a reality
Stout AgTech developed their proprietary Smart Cultivator and weeder starting in 2019, and the solution uses artificial intelligence and cutting-edge vision technology to eliminate weeds and cultivate ground in a single pass.
I had the opportunity to stop by the Stout AgTech factory in Salinas CA last week, and I was given a tour of the factory by Stout CEO Brent Shedd. Shedd joined the organization as CEO in 2021, just the organization was starting to commercialize their solution and build out the rest of the organization.
The Stout solution is similar to the FarmWise solution in that both machines use vision cameras and artificial intelligence to identify crop plants and weeds in the ground. Then, both machines leverage robotic, articulated blades in the ground to cut up weeds and preserve the crop plants.
The big difference between the two solutions is in the implementation of the cultivation. The Stout Smart Cultivator is engineered as a new class of implements called “Smart Implements”. The form factor is similar to any other mechanical implement that is designed to be pulled behind a human driven (or autonomous) tractor.
As Shedd describes it, farmers are familiar using any number of specific implements to work their fields. A “Smart Implement” is less intimidating than an autonomous tractor might be, as long it is easy-to-use and does a thorough job.
As a result, the Stout solution is primarily designed to be robust, and employs a state-of-the-art, on-board computer system to eliminate weeds and reduce weed pressure in diverse farming operations. The Smart Cultivator is built to withstand and last in the harsh environments of farming.
Shedd showed me a machine that is completely self-contained, IP67 sealed, and designed to be power washed at the end of the day without concern for any of the operational elements. The unit has an onboard LCD touch pad for modifying parameters, but requires no interaction from the tractor operator other than the normal implement controls in the cab of the tractor. Once the smart implement is lowered over the crop the machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) model identified the crop plants and weed plants and begins actuating the mechanical blades to remove the weeds as the implement is pulled through the field.
An all-inclusive AI model is its super-power
According to Shedd, Stout has trained an all inclusive AI-model that includes all of the possible crop plants and weeds, rather than training individual AI-models for a specific plant. This effectively means that the operator simply needs to lower the smart implement over the crop row and the AI-model begins to identify the crop plants without any need to pre-select a crop plant of choice for a given field. This simplifies the operations in the field – meaning that a operator can easily move from one crop to another crop, without having to get out of the cab to modify any settings on the Stout Smart Cultivator.
Shedd was hired to lead the organization not because of his experience in robotics or agriculture, but rather because of his experience leading successful AI-development organizations. For any modern software development team leveraging AI as a core part of the technology, training, tuning and deploying effective AI solutions has a steep learning curve.
The Stout Smart Cultivator is a solution to the mechanical cultivation needs of modern farming operations, especially for organic farmers. While the solution is designed primarily to be pulled behind a manned tractor, there is nothing that would prevent it from being pulled behind an autonomous tractor at some point in the future, fully automated the cultivation process.
To learn more, check out the company website: Stout AgTech
Editors note: This story originally appeared on The Robot Report.