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.

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Coronavirus dashboard

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  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3:30 a.m. ET: 31,870,904 — Total deaths: 976,311 — Total recoveries: 21,979,888Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3:30 a.m ET: 6,934,205 — Total deaths: 201,909 — Total recoveries: 2,670,256 — Total tests: 97,459,742Map.
  3. Health: CDC director says over 90% of Americans have not yet been exposed to coronavirus — Supply shortages continue to plague testing.
  4. Politics: Missouri Gov. Mike Parson tests positive for coronavirus — Poll says 51% of Republicans trust Trump on coronavirus more than the CDC.
  5. Technology: The tech solutions of 2020 may be sapping our resolve to beat the coronavirus
  6. Vaccines: Johnson & Johnson begins large phase 3 trial — The FDA plans to toughen standards.
  7. World: Justin Trudeau says Canada's second wave has begun
  8. Future: America's halfway coronavirus response

Two officers shot in Louisville amid Breonna Taylor protests

Police officers stand guard during a protest in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Ben Hendren/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Louisville Metro Police Department said two officers were shot downtown in the Kentucky city late Wednesday, hours after a grand jury announced an indictment in the Breonna Taylor case.

Details: A police spokesperson told a press briefing a suspect was in custody and that the injuries of both officers were not life-threatening. One officer was "alert and stable" and the other was undergoing surgery, he said.

"Not enough": Protesters react to no murder charges in Breonna Taylor case

A grand jury on Wednesday indicted Brett Hankison, one of the Louisville police officers who entered Breonna Taylor's home in March, on three counts of wanton endangerment for firing shots blindly into neighboring apartments.

Details: Angering protesters, the grand jury did not indict any of the three officers involved in the botched drug raid on homicide or manslaughter charges related to the death of Taylor.

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