How Blue River Technology is creating the future of farming with help from Figure Eight
“Walking through the field, taking tallies on how many weeds we hit, how many we missed, and our accuracy was in the high 90s on that test. We’re really excited about bringing this technology to the farmer and using AI to really modernize farming.”
– Chris Padwick,
Tech Fellow, Machine Learning Team Lead, Blue River Technology
Blue River is a John Deere company based in Silicon Valley with a goal to “optimize every plant.” A leader in the agricultural technology space, Blue River combines machine learning and smart equipment to modernize farming and make it both smarter and more sustainable. They do with this AI-powered farming equipment that can sense, detect, and act as it moves through large farms.
Put simply, the problem is weeds. Large-scale farmers spend an average of $150,000 a year on herbicides, using what’s called a self-propelled sprayer to dust hundreds of acres of crops. These self-propelled sprayers cover a lot of ground but they’re not precise. In fact, they simply spray everything in their path, which means both weeds and crops get hit with herbicide. This in turn forces farmers to buy treated seeds like Roundup Ready soybeans, seeds which are significantly more expensive than non-GMO varieties. What’s more, weeds like waterhemp or pigweed are resistant to the most widely used herbicides, so spraying them is ineffective and wasteful.
This is all to say that reducing weed pressure on large farms is a costly endeavor. The machines cover a lot of ground, but they’re inefficient. This inefficiency means farmers are wasting money on herbicide and are forced into purchasing GMO seeds.
It’s a problem. But it’s a problem that Blue River is solving.
Blue River is building the next generation of smart agricultural equipment and nowhere is this more evident than their See & Spray line. See & Spray, essentially, uses self-propelled sprayer equipment but infuses it with visual intelligence. Instead of blanketing every square inch of a farm with herbicide, See & Spray equipment uses on-board computing and vision algorithms to identify individual plants, precision-spraying only the weeds and sparing the crops. And those computer vision models are built on labeled training data from Figure Eight.
Blue River sends real-world images of large-scale farms through the Figure Eight platform, where each individual photo is labeled on a pixel-by-pixel level. Once a model has seen a sufficient amount of labeled images, it starts to understand what cotton looks like versus pigweed. These identifications enable the machines to precisely spray individual weeds instead of acres of farmland.
There are myriad benefits for farmers here. For one, precision spraying massively cuts that average herbicide cost of $150,000 by 90%. And because crops aren’t sprayed in herbicide, farmers can use non-GMO seeds, which cost about half the price of Roundup Ready crops. The environmental benefit of using less herbicide–thereby removing harmful chemicals from the water table–is a gigantic benefit, not just for the farmers in question, but the world at large.
Because Blue River can identify not just weeds but specific types of weeds, their sprayers can actually avoid using certain herbicides on plants that are resistant to those particular chemicals. They’re constantly adding new plant types to their models, sending images directly from the field, and making their algorithms more effective with each passing day.