Isilon founder lifts the hood on farming startup Carbon Robotics and its weed zapping machine – GeekWire
Carbon Robotics, a Seattle company led by Isilon Systems co-founder Paul Mikesell, is unveiling its self-driving robot that uses artificial intelligence to identify weeds growing in fields of vegetables, then zaps them with precision thermal bursts from lasers.
The startup, previously known as Maka Autonomous Robots, was in stealth mode since 2018. Mikesell sold Isilon for $2.25 billion in 2010, helped Uber open its Seattle engineering office in 2015, then moved to Facebook’s Seattle Oculus lab before taking the startup plunge again.
Carbon’s tech holds the promise of reducing the cost of growing organic vegetables so that they no longer cost a whole paycheck.
“We have all of this technology that allows, for the first time, computers to see things and understand what they’re looking at,” Mikesell said. For him, the question was: “how do we apply this to real physical world work?” He turned to food production.
Scientists have been experimenting with laser weed-control for more than a decade after finding that the heat of lasers vaporizes water inside plant cells, destroying the cells and killing the plant. In 2013, a German company announced plans to use a laser-armed drone to zap weeds from the air.
But what farmers need is less a revolution in farming methods than a revolutionary tool that fits into their current farming patterns, Mikesell said.
Carbon worked closely with farmers in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, he said. As a result, Carbon’s robot system — the Autonomous Weeder — was built about the size of a medium tractor so it would fit in the furrows between rows of common crops like onions and sweet potatoes.
It can cover up to 16 acres of cropland a day, zapping as many as 100,000 weeds an hour, Mikesell said. And since it’s self-driving, all a farmer has to do is take it to the field in the morning and turn it on.
“We’re really intent on not making farmers have to change how they’re doing things,” Mikesell said. “That’s been a key to our success. We fit right into their operations.”
Weed control is an essential part of successful farming — and is perhaps the essential factor for organic farmers, said Doug Collins, a soils scientist with Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension research center in Puyallup, Wash., who serves on the Organic Advisory Board for the state’s Agriculture Department.
“It’s frequently the No. 1-cited problem,” he said. Weeds can “get out of hand and you can lose a crop pretty easily. The competition from the weeds can make it so the crop is not worth harvesting.”
For organic farmers in particular, the cost of weed control can be high. Collins said his research on larger organic farms in the Columbia Basin showed that farmers can spend $1,200 to $1,600 an acre hiring workers to eradicate weeds by hand with hoes. Even non-organic farmers will hire hand crews to supplement the weed-killing sprays they use.
It’s hard, physically demanding work, Collins said. “It’s not fun.”
There are other alternatives for weed control — like covering the space between rows with tarps or black plastic, to block weeds from getting the sunlight they need — but they’re not always practical for large operations, Collins said.
One key for Carbon has been its Northwest location, Mikesell said. The region is unique in that it has a deep depth of knowledge in AI and computer visioning; an established advanced manufacturing sector; a diverse agricultural industry; and a strong venture capital community — all in close proximity.
“There’s not a lot of places in the world where you have all those things coming together,” he said.
The 21-person startup has raised $8.9 million to date from Fuse and Bolt.
Carbon has sold out all the robots it built for the 2021 planting season, and is looking for an industrial partner who could help it build more units for 2022, Mikesell said.
The company is looking to get into the hundreds of units built and shipped for next year, he said. “There’s a demand for a lot more than that, tens or hundreds of thousands of them.”