With global population and environmental stressors increasing, agriculture can be summed up in one word: unsustainable. To affordably produce enough food to feed the world, today’s farms require significant quantities of basic inputs, crop protectants, capital, and labor. What if we could reduce the need for each of these? That’s where Blue River Technology comes in. This California-based startup currently provides cutting-edge lettuce thinning technology, and is expanding to plant phenotyping for crop breeders.
Blue River Technology wants to revolutionize the agriculture industry by “making every plant count.”
Let’s take lettuce. Not all lettuce seeds germinate after planting. To overcome this, farmers plant 5 seeds for every plant they plan to harvest, and then wait to see which seeds germinate. Manual laborers are then brought in to remove excess plants by hand. This process is inefficient and also expensive, given recent declines in farm labor availability.
Blue River provides an alternative to this practice. Their solution combines advanced robotics and machine learning algorithms to visually characterize each lettuce plant. Their robot is pulled along the lettuce bed by a tractor, treating each row individually with a dedicated robotic module. Each module contains a camera that images the lettuce and an on-board computer that decides within a tenth of a second whether to remove an unwanted plant. The robot leaves the remaining plants consistently spaced and sized according to the farmer’s needs (typically around 10 inches apart), maximizing the field’s yield potential. As compared to traditional methods, Blue River’s solution has proven to increase yields by 10% per acre.
So what’s the next step for Blue River? Right now, they are developing prototypes for high-throughput, field-based phenotyping for crop breeders, particularly for commodity row crops like corn. As Matt Thompson, Senior Product Manager at Blue River, suggests, “We think there is a tremendous amount of untapped value in simply collecting data about how plants look in the field during breeding trials.” Ultimately, as Blue River proves the feasibility and value of generating and processing massive amounts of field-based, plant-by-plant phenotypic data, they believe that it will become technically much easier to develop sustainable seed products that can be tailored to specific regions and crop needs. “For now, we are actively engaging with major seed companies to make our case for the value of what we’re doing. We’re already getting good traction with that.”
Blue River believes that every plant is different and needs different care and treatment. According to Thompson, “If you don’t treat plants individually, then you’re wasting an opportunity for efficiency.” Blue River started with lettuce, has expanded to corn for phenotyping, and will eventually expand to other specialty and commodity crops. “We want to transform the way agriculture is done and we think the way to do that is one plant at a time.”
To learn more, check out Blue River Technology.