'Lettuce Bot,' the weed-killing robot, won't do yards

Sorry, but this Lettuce Bot is not going to help you with your yard. It's a prototype robot designed to recognize and kill weeds in giant commercial farms, where weeding by hand isn't an efficient option and damaging pesticides are an imperfect solution.

Herbicides are not only poisonous for the planet, they are inefficient because, sadly, they often kill the very plants they're supposed to protect. The Lettuce Bot will use computer vision technology to determine the difference between a lettuce and a neighboring weed and will inject the weed with a small dose of fertilizer.*

Blue River Technology, the company behind the Lettuce Bot, or "organic weed elimination" as they like to call it, has developed two prototypes — one on a tractor and one more rustic version with bicycle tires. Inside there's some fancy computer algorithms at work.

The 'bot has three different algorithms that drive its tasks. The first takes readings from a camera to determine whether it sees a plant — and even whether the plants are touching. That's where the second algorithm comes in — it has to classify the plant and if the plants are touching it needs to determine the difference between them. The makers of the robotic helper report this process is 98-99 percent effective due to extensive training in the field.

The final algorithm is probably the most complex — the kill phase. Because the machine is in motion it needs to determine the right moment and plant to hit with the fertilizer based on how fast the machine is rolling. It's currently accurate to one-quarter of an inch at one mile per hour; the goal is to retain that accuracy while moving three miles per hour.

There is a lot of support for the Lettuce Bot as it saves on humans having to do back breaking work, and as the project moves from the killing the plants with a fertilizer and can pull the weeds via machinery — a necessary assault on weeds that have gradually become pesticide resistant. Plus, eliminating expensive and hazardous herbicides is cheaper for farmers, and a boon for organic products.

This support has helped the company raise $3.1 million in venture capital funding after early grants from the National Science Foundation. This will help further research and commercialization of the rolling robot with a taste for weeds, as famers and corporations seek ways to efficiently and safely feed the world's seven billion people.

Via GigaOm, EarthTechling

*No word on what kind of fertilizer (chemical or chemical-free) was used in testing the prototypes.

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