Aigen Deploys Robotic Weeders to Combat Herbicide Resistance in Sugar Beet Fields

Redmond-based agricultural technology company Aigen has introduced a fleet of robotic weeders in sugar beet fields near Moorhead, Minnesota. The solar-powered robots, equipped with cameras and sharp blades, autonomously identify and remove weeds, aiming to combat the growing problem of herbicide resistance. The deployment marks the first year of Aigen’s weed-killing robots, with a team of operators and engineers working on-site to monitor and refine their performance.

Traditional herbicides have become less effective as weeds develop resistance, posing a significant challenge for farmers. Common weeds like kochia and waterhemp have shown widespread resistance to pesticides, leading to the need for alternative weed control methods. Aigen’s robots offer a simple yet innovative solution, utilizing a hoe-like mechanism to manually remove weeds from the ground.

Aigen’s field operations director, Chris Benner, emphasized the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in the robots’ software and hardware. The AI enables the machines to distinguish between sugar beets and weeds and strike the latter while in motion. Despite the robots’ seemingly straightforward design, the underlying technology and AI algorithms are complex and crucial to their effectiveness.

The company’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Rich Wurden, a former Tesla engineer, was inspired to develop the robots after learning about the challenges posed by herbicide resistance from a relative who farms in the Red River Valley. Aigen’s primary goal is to reduce pesticide use, as there are limited alternatives to chemicals currently available. Wurden believes that steel tools, like the robot weeders, offer a resistance-free approach to weed control.

Aigen has deployed 50 robots in sugar beet fields this summer, with plans to expand to 500 robots next year. The company has received significant interest from farmers, resulting in a waiting list for the robots. The success of the robots in reducing herbicide use and controlling weeds will determine their adoption by farmers like Neil Rockstad, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. Rockstad expressed optimism about the potential of robotic weeders to revolutionize weed control and reduce reliance on herbicides.

While the robots are still in the learning phase, Aigen is continuously improving their performance. Engineers have faced challenges in dealing with the sticky clay soil of the Red River Valley, but they remain committed to refining the machines before scaling up production. The company aims to create fully autonomous robots that can operate independently and notify farmers in case of breakdowns.

Farmers like Trent Eidem from Moorhead are impressed by the robots’ ability to quickly identify and remove weeds. Although concerns about the cost of acquiring or leasing the robots persist, Eidem believes that agriculture is embracing technology at an accelerated pace, and farmers are eager to adopt innovative solutions to enhance their productivity.

In addition to weed control, Aigen is exploring other potential applications for the robots, such as soil nutrient testing and early disease detection in plants. The company also highlights the robots’ ability to generate electricity through solar panels during the off-season, providing additional benefits to farmers.

As Aigen’s robotic weeders continue to demonstrate their effectiveness in sugar beet fields, the company plans to expand their deployment to soybean fields next year. Aigen envisions constructing a manufacturing plant in the Midwest to cater to the growing demand for these innovative machines.