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An autonomous robot burns weeds using lasers

And now for news that is not exciting at first glance: the startup company Carbon Robotics is selling a new autonomous robot that can identify weeds and vaporize them using powerful lasers.

Let's go into the intricacies of the invention for a moment, before I explain why I find it particularly interesting.

Every farmer knows that weeding is a necessary matter, but also one that requires time and effort. This is where the said robot comes into the picture, on all four wheels and weighing more than four tons. The robot is equipped with an advanced computer and high-resolution cameras with which it is able to detect weeds. Then, once he discovers his enemies, he burns them with eight lasers that work simultaneously. In total, the robot is capable of vaporizing more than one hundred thousand weeds per hour.

The robot is powered by diesel, and is able to work day and night, going over more than eighty dunams every day. It does not harm friendly plants or the soil - the lasers ionize only the weeds. And despite its enormous weight, the company claims it should improve crop yields, especially for farmers who don't want to use chemical herbicides that can harm the environment.

What is the price of pleasure? I could not find this small piece of information on the company's website, which claims that the stock of robots for sale in 2021 has already sold out, but is ready to accept new orders for 2022.

The new development is particularly interesting to me for a number of reasons.

First of all, it demonstrates how new inventions are born. Not from nothing, but from a combination of several existing technologies. The technique for eliminating weeds using a laser was demonstrated back in 2012 under laboratory conditions[1]. A weed killer robot was developed in 2016, but it threw 'organic pellets' all over the field indiscriminately, in a way that could also damage normal plants[2], and was certainly not energy efficient. In 2019, we already saw an autonomous robot that hit weeds in a targeted manner using 'electric shocks', but it had to rely on another robot that first mapped the entire field and located the weeds[3].

The current robot is a combination of all these technologies in one body. This is the expected path for many technologies: integration together into a more sophisticated device, which performs the work more efficiently than each of the technologies on its own.

The second interesting thing is that this combination of technologies can lead to a fundamental change in certain areas, including our understanding of the future. Until now it was common that farmers had to use herbicides to deal with the noxious plants in the field. Those herbicides also harmed the environment, and thus agriculture was responsible for part of the soil and groundwater pollution. If the new robot makes it possible to replace some of the herbicides, it can - without exaggeration - change the world. Or at least our predictions about agriculture. It can improve the quality of the environment, and result in each field producing more food at a lower energy cost and with a minimal environmental signature.

To be clear: this robot will not necessarily bring the change, but it is only the swallow that heralds the coming of spring. Does anyone really believe that he will be the first and last robot to be integrated into agriculture, when artificial intelligence and robotics are racing ahead? of course not. It is just another step on the way to almost completely autonomous agriculture, in which robots will perform all the necessary operations with minimum human intervention and maximum efficiency.

Last but not least, we see here the power of combining technological tools - and it doesn't matter which - with the image processing capabilities of artificial intelligence, which easily compete with human vision in certain fields. There is a reason that vision is the main sense we use to understand what is happening around us. When we arm systems with advanced vision capabilities, we enable them to perform actions that only humans could previously perform in the physical world.

The main and most important difference is that the capabilities of artificial intelligence are not limited to a pair of eyes or a single brain. Artificial intelligence engines can examine the environment with tens or hundreds of 'eyes', and weld and cross-reference the information coming from them into a more complex picture than any human could produce on their own. Then they can act accordingly.

What can we do with robots endowed with computer vision capabilities and lasers? Perhaps identify mosquitoes, both through sensors that rely on electromagnetic radiation and through audio sensors, and burn them while they are floating in the air in the room and preparing to suck their blood. Such a development should not be complex or expensive - it only requires the installation of several sensors on the walls, and 2-3 devices for launching laser beams that together can burn the unfortunate insect. We can activate the system as soon as we go to sleep, and be sure that we will not wake up with bites.

Actually, why stop there? A similar system may treat a flea outbreak at home, by scanning the floor and furniture. Or - when installed on the ceiling in a basket - to eliminate the small pests that attack the vegetables and fruits in the stalls, thus extending their shelf life and minimizing food waste. And if you want to go to the extreme with the technology, it can also fight mice and rats.

The combination of lasers to give machines the ability to see to fight pests is just one of the many uses of artificial intelligence that will appear in the coming years. Each of them could undermine the fields of industry we are familiar with today, and lead to a more efficient, resource-efficient and cleaner world.

All in all, there is something to look forward to.