What John Deere's 'Lettuce Robot' Means For Green Agriculture

John Deere has recently bought a robotics startup for $305 million. The technology offers farmers a system that can spot and kill weeds with incredible precision.


May 26 2019, Updated 7:49 p.m. ET

Whether you've set foot on a farm or not, you may have seen images or videos of planes dumping gallons of pesticides across massive crop fields. Those pesticides and other chemicals are traditionally applied blindly across hundreds of acres at a time. Why? Because it would otherwise be immensely expensive and time-consuming to find and destroy every weed one by one. Luckily, robots are here to help.

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Blue River Technology, a robotics group, created a system that can spot and kill weeds with excellent precision. How does this work? Basically, the robot is towed behind a tractor and uses its cameras to automatically identify, target, and destroy weeds with nearly perfect accuracy. 

John Deere has recently given the term ‘seed money’ a whole new meaning, as they’ve just invested $305 million in acquiring a startup company which has created a solution for this inefficient weed control method. This major acquisition is a recent example of how the agricultural industry is starting to take machine learning very seriously.  

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Overall, the acquisition seems like a natural move for both companies. After all, John Deere is a name synonymous with hard-working, tough Americans. The business was established in 1837 and has become a staple equipment company for farmers. Over the years the company has adopted newer technologies to keep up with the needs of its customers. 

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For example, in 1999, Deere acquired NavCom Technology which allows the company to harnesses GPS tech to automate the movement of machines on farms. The recent acquisition of Blue River Technology demonstrates that John Deere is focused on precision farming more than ever. 

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For Blue River, it makes sense to join an industry leader such as John Deere. Blue River Technology is based in northern California. The company was founded in 2011, and with just 60 employees, the company has taken significant strides in the area of agricultural machine learning. 

The technology not only conveniently takes out a lot of guesswork for farmers, but it significantly reduces the amount of pesticide needed to remove weeds. The system could reduce the need to use herbicide by a whopping 90 percent. By knowing exactly where the weeds are, farmers no longer have to spend vast amounts of money to cover their fields with unnecessary amounts of pesticide. 

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The company’s head of intelligent solutions, John Stone told Wired, “Taking care of each individual plant unlocks a lot of economic value for farmers.” As a win-win-win solution, fewer pesticides in the environment is not only good for farmers but also the environment and consumers.  

John Deere is planning to keep Blue River in their original location in Sunnyvale, where the group can focus on growth. The team is already working on expanding the technology to other versions of agricultural machines. They also hope to use their computer vision software for harvesting and planting tools in the future. 

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