Nexus Robotics is one of this year’s winners in IFPA’s Fresh Field Catalyst technology accelerator. It was founded in 2017 by engineering students from Halifax who wanted to disrupt and improve traditional farming practices.
They’re building innovative robotic tools that will free growers from backbreaking repetitive tasks — and encourage Canada’s agriculture industry to become more sustainable.
Teric Greenan is the COO, and his city-born perspective helps him ideate incisive solutions to agricultural issues.
Luc Labbe, CEO at Nexus, brings a wealth of experience and in-depth agronomic knowledge.
Join us as we discuss:
- How robotic tech will help solve the agricultural labor shortage and lower costs
- Teaching robots how to identify between different plants and eradicate weeds
- Automating the dirty and dangerous jobs that no one wants to do
- Adding value for farmers
Intelligent machines could solve many of the problems that plague modern farming — let’s dig deeper!
What's Wrong With Farming?
A city kid who dropped out of engineering school, Teric was spending a lot of time in his vegetable garden. Then in 2017, he traveled across Canada and spent time on some farms where he really fell in love with agriculture.
Teric's engineering mind kicked in when he saw all the systems that make farms productive. Once Teric himself started a farm, he got opportunities to talk with a lot of the larger-scale growers in the area. He was shocked about how much time and resources they were spending on repetitive tasks.
As an engineer, Teric knew that robots were good candidates to replace some of the tasks that humans were doing by hand. So he set out to start a company that would bring the best in AI to the best in agriculture. To do that, Teric brought on two friends he knew from engineering school.
Luc joined them when Teric's investors said he needed an agronomist, someone bilingual, and most importantly, someone experienced to help these young guys run their company and solve the labor shortage problem on farms.
Solving the Labor Shortage, One Robot at a Time
As consumers, we want agriculture to be sustainable. Right now, North Americans accomplish that through migrant workers from Central America, who come to our countries and pull the weeds out of our fields by hand. That model works for just one reason — our economies are stronger than their economies.
That model cannot last forever, though. The Central American countries are quickly catching up, and their economies are growing as well. A day will come when people from Central America don't want to leave their families for six months and pull weeds in the fields of Canada or the United States.
Farmers are already having issues with the cost of labor and labor availability — and it seems like these problems are only getting worse. When human beings don't want to pull out our weeds, we'll have two choices:
- Live with an unsustainable food system, or…
- nnovate and create technologies to do these tasks.
For Luc and Teric, it's not a choice: Innovation is essential.
Put simply: To make healthy foods like vegetables available at a low cost, we need to develop more technologies to help us produce them.
Teaching Robots to Farm
If you watch one of Teric and Luc's robots in action, what would you see?
You'd see an articulated mechanical arm that mimics a human arm, and it would be pulling weeds out of the ground by mechanical hand. It can pull weeds at any stage of development.
Does that sound inefficient? Surprisingly, it's the way we do things right now only with human hands. As Luc told us, "The origin of the design idea was to try to do it as closely as possible to the humans."
Pluck the Weeds, Don't Kill the Plants
How does the robot know a weed from a plant?
That's the thorniest question Luc and Teric have to face.
To do so, they build a model for each crop, which requires about three weeks of rotation and images. Right now, the robot can work on any of the row crops because the company has models for lettuce, carrots, cabbage, and a few other things.
"As the demand comes in and we have more people to work with us," Luc said, "then we'll come in with pretty much any crop."
Dirty & Dangerous: Automating the Jobs Nobody Wants to Do
Across industries, we automate the jobs humans don't want to do — basically, the jobs that are dirty or dangerous.
Field workers don't want to be out in the field pulling weeds. They all want to be in the pack house where it's air-conditioned. If you've ever pulled weeds, you'll know why!
Weeding a field is a simple, repetitive task, and conventional wisdom says that the simpler a task is, the quicker it'll be automated. It’s also true that the less enjoyable a task is, the quicker it will be automated, Teric adds.
Pulling weeds is simple, dirty, boring, and slightly dangerous. Automating this task is the perfect value-add for farmers and consumers alike.
It's not the first time we've replaced farm hands with machines. Think about tractors.
Creating Exponential Value for Farmers
Farmers love tractors. They are versatile machines. You can hook up pretty much anything to a tractor and it will do the work.
Teric and Luc are trying to emulate that versatility with their bots. Teric says, "If we can have one robot that's capable of doing many, many tasks for the farmers on one unit, it adds a lot more value. It's not just like one plus one, it adds value exponentially."
The more features that get added to the robot, the more versatile the technology becomes, and the more valuable farmers will find it.
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