Carbon Robotics is a start up focussing on what I would consider as a niche (although it is actually a very large niche): weeding. They developed an autonomous robot equipped with 12 HiRes cameras and AI software to detect weeds. Once detected a laser beam strikes, zaps, the weed without affecting the crop. To appreciate how effective it is take a look at the clip (and appreciate the StarWars like soundtrack…).
It is no small feat, it would have been impossible just 20 years ago and 10 years ago the cost for such a machine would have been staggering. Detecting weeds, particularly when they are just sprouting, it’s difficult even for the human eye. You need to tell the difference between the crop and the weed at a time when the difference is minimal. The identification has to be done in presence of wind, moving the leaves, and as the robot is moving over the rows of crops.
So far industrial agriculture has been using pesticides to get rid of weeds (handmade weeding has just become impossible in industrial agriculture). Some 127,000 tons of glyphosate, a herbicide, are used every year in the US and genetic engineering has been used to make crops resisting to herbicide. Unfortunately, weeds are also evolving to become resistant to herbicide in a never ending race for survival.
The use of laser weeding changes the rules of the game, another area where artificial intelligence is making a difference.