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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

Texas abortion law remains in effect after appeals court ruling

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters outside the Supreme Court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in November. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A U.S. appeals court transferred a challenge to Texas' law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy to the state supreme court in a 2-1 vote on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision means the country's most restrictive abortion law can remain in place for the time being.

2 hours ago - World

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.

Airlines call for Biden admin's "immediate intervention" in 5G deployment

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The CEOs of leading U.S. air cargo and passenger carriers on Monday warned the Biden administration there could be "catastrophic disruption" after AT&T and Verizon deploy a new 5G service this week.

Driving the news: They said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other top federal officials ahead of the C-Band 5G service's deployment Wednesday that "the nation's commerce will grind to a halt" and "could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas."