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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

Virginia lawmakers vote to legalize marijuana in 2024

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Lawmakers in Virginia on Saturday approved compromise legislation that would legalize marijuana in 2024, putting the state a step closer to becoming the first in the South to end prohibition on the drug, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Why it matters: The legislation will make Virginia the 16th state to legalize marijuana, per Politico. It would add to a slate of laws that have seen Virginia move in a more progressive direction during the tenure of Gov. Ralph Northam.

Scammers seize on COVID confusion

Data: FTC; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Scamming has skyrocketed in the past year, and much of the increase is attributed to COVID-related scams, more recently around vaccines.

Why it matters: The pandemic has created a prime opportunity for scammers to target people who are already confused about the chaotic rollouts of things like stimulus payments, loans, contact tracing and vaccines. Data shows that older people who aren't digitally literate are the most vulnerable.

14 hours ago - Health

FDA authorizes Johnson & Johnson's one-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

Photo: Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday issued an emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson's one-shot coronavirus vaccine.

Why it matters: The authorization of a third coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. will help speed up the vaccine rollout across the country, especially since the J&J shot only requires one dose as opposed to Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's two-shot vaccines.