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The FarmWise Titan weed cutter. Photo: FarmWise

A startup is rolling out automated weed cutters at a moment when COVID-19 has made farm work more dangerous for human beings.

Why it matters: Robots in all fields have received a lift from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and farming is no different. One of the oldest occupations in the world could be the next to be automated.

There are two ways to remove weeds from the farms growing specialty crops like lettuce. One is to use herbicides — but such chemicals have increasingly come under fire for their alleged toxicity. The other is to employ workers to do the back-breaking labor of pulling out weeds by hand — but those workers have become harder to find due to shrinking labor pools and immigration restrictions.

  • The startup FarmWise is offering a third option: robots. The company's Titan weed cutters autonomously trawl through fields, detecting and destroying weeds with retractable hoes.
  • The robots use cameras and machine vision to create a 3D map of the farm plot and tell weeds from commercial plants.
  • "One of the robots can replace the entire workflow for weeding, equivalent to a crew of 15 to 20 people," says Sébastien Boyer, FarmWise's CEO.

How it works: Like an increasing number of robot suppliers, FarmWise provides its Titan weed cutters — eight of which are currently operating in California's Salinas Valley — on a service model, charging farmers by the acre.

  • Boyer sees FarmWise's robots eventually expanding to collect detailed data on farm plots, including everything from temperature to humidity to soil salinity. The result would be farming that is both automated and precise.
  • With COVID-19 hitting migrant farm workers hard, robots could also be a safer option — albeit at the potential expense of those jobs.

What's next: For all their associations with nature, American farmers have been quick to adopt new technology, from the rotary combines of the 1970s to the self-steering, GPS-enabled tractors used today. With that technology has come the consolidation of farms and a drastic drop in the number of farmers.

The bottom line: With the annual shipment of mobile farm robots expected to grow by a hundredfold over the next decade, U.S. farms will become more efficient — and much emptier.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

Swimmer Chase Kalisz first American to win Tokyo Olympics gold medal

Chase Kalisz of Team United States celebrates after winning the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Swimmer Chase Kalisz has become the first Team United States Olympian to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

The big picture: The Rio 2016 silver medalist's winning time in the men's 400 meters Individual Medley Final was 4 minutes 9.42 seconds. His teammate Jay Litherland took silver, .86 seconds behind him. Moments later, Kieran Smith grabbed a third medal for the U.S. when he won bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

2 hours ago - Sports

Gymnast Suni Lee to make historic debut at Olympics

USA's Sunisa Lee performs at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, on Oct. 13, 2019. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

When Sunisa "Suni" Lee steps up to the mat at the Tokyo Olympics, she'll be thinking of her father's pep talks even as he watches from thousands of miles away.

The big picture: The 18-year-old made history this year when she became the first Hmong American to be named to a U.S. Olympic team. Even more special was her dad's presence in the crowd at the Olympic trials — it was only the second time he watched her compete in person since a 2019 accident paralyzed him from the chest down.

DOJ won't investigate nursing home deaths in N.Y. and 2 other states

People who've lost loved ones due to COVID-19 while they were in New York nursing homes attend a March protest and vigil in New York City. As of this month, Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Department of Justice has decided not to launch a civil rights investigation into whether policies in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan contributed to pandemic deaths in nursing homes, according to a letter sent to Republicans.

Why it matters: The Trump DOJ requested data from the three states plus New Jersey last August "amid still-unanswered questions about whether some states, especially New York, inadvertently worsened the pandemic death toll by requiring nursing homes to accept residents previously hospitalized for COVID-19," per AP.