Autonomous Weed-Killing Robot Could be the Future of Farming

From the annals of German farming trivia: The infamous Nürburgring circuit wasn’t initially designed for speeding men, but for saving cows. As brave Autofahrers took up public road racing during the Twenties, they began splattering wandering, grazing livestock in the Eifel mountains. Otto Creutz, who fathered the ambitious racetrack that eventually traced 17.6 multifarious miles over 1,000 feet of elevation change, reportedly said: “I am here in the first place for the farmers and in the second place for motorists.”

Nearly a century later, German ingenuity is lending farmers a robotic helping hand. This is the Bonirob, a weed-killing, crop-scanning field worker that no one will ever call an Illegal. Funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, created by automotive-industrial giant Bosch and its start-up Deepfield Robotics, the Bonirob puts your typical John Deere tractor to shame.

The Bonirob looks like a compact lunar rover, or maybe the Kush-aided dream of a Humboldt County pot farmer. It makes its way through fields using GPS, video and Lidar scanning. Those fix its position to the nearest centimeter; roughly as exacting as Audi’s autonomous RS7 racing concepts. Using image files, machine learning teaches the robot to distinguish between different plant species. Professor Amos Albert, a robotics expert and Deepfield’s general manager, says it’s a tricky process: “The leaves of carrot and chamomile, for example, are very similar in their early stages. Over time, based on parameters such as leaf color, shape and size, Bonirob learns how to differentiate more accurately between plants we want and plants we don’t want.”

Instead of plucking weeds or hosing them with environmentally sketchy herbicides, the machine uses a ramrod to smash undesired plants into the ground so crop can flourish. But this is more than a earth-friendly Roomba; the Bonirob is named for a system in which laboratory scientists analyze thousands of plants (size, shape, resistance to insects and viruses) to decide which new strains are worth developing. It can take up to 10 years to bring these improved crops to market. Bosch says Bonirob could speed the process by imaging and analyzing plants in the literal field, assessing how well they actually grow. Farmers benefit again: The technology-award-winning robot scans and samples crops to decide how much water and fertilizer they need.

As with autonomous cars that rely on similar sensor technology, Bosch believes its technology could transform farming in coming decades. That’s critical for an agriculture industry that’s seen yields-per-acre triple since 1950, but may need to boost yields by three percent each year just to keep up with population growth. Some potentially awesome technology, even if we don’t get a racetrack out of it.

Mississippi Sinkhole Swallows a Dozen Cars; Spares Local IHOP

In Feb. 2014, it was the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky. Now there’s been another massive, car-swallowing sinkhole, this time at a Meridian, Miss., International House of Pancakes. If the next sinkhole wipes out a midway of deep-fried delicacies at Darlington Raceway, the warning will be clear: God is throwing a tantrum, and wants to send car owners below the Mason-Dixon to a literal Deep South.

The mighty “Mississinki,” as I’ve taken to calling it, carved a parking-lot trench roughly 375 feet long and 35 feet wide. It swallowed more than a dozen cars, but spared the local IHOP, which had opened just days before. Cars tumbled 30 feet into a muddy grave, with rain hampering a recovery that police expected would take several days. One woman left dinner to find her brand-new Ford F-150 in the pit. One very lucky Chevy dangles perilously at the edge.

Buck Roberts, Meridian’s public safety director, told the Meridian Star that the collapse isn’t technically a sinkhole. Real sinkholes are caused by circulating groundwater that dissolves limestone, carbonate or other susceptible rocks below the surface, hollowing out caverns until the land above collapses. Instead, the restaurant had been built over a former city culvert, which may have weakened due to area construction. Roberts, who would probably remind you to pronounce the c in arctic, called it “an accident.”

Not a single injury was sustained. Likely because every man, woman and child was enjoying a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity®, which IHOP informs us can now be had with peaches, cinnamon apple topping or glazed strawberries, finished with fluffy whipped topping. The IHOP will remain closed for weeks, with Meridian appropriately declared a state of emergency. A little late for that, don’t you think?