Ex-Tesla engineer builds Aigen robotic to take away weeds with out pesticides

Aigen Founders: Rich Warren (CTO) and Kenny Lee (CEO)

Courtesy: Aigen

The Aigen Element looks like a drafting table on sturdy tires. It drives continuously across farmland at about two miles per hour, using an advanced computer vision system to identify crops and unwanted botanical invaders.

With dual-axis robotic arms positioned close to the ground, the Element can clear weeds out of the way, where they dry out before they can seed and spread.

Deployed in a fleet, sized to meet the needs of a specific grow operation, the robots work non-stop for 12 to 14 hours at a time and never need to be plugged into the mains. They are equipped with a lithium iron phosphate battery. and flexible solar panels that are lighter than those typically used on rooftops. You can even run for about four hours in the dark, or six hours in light to moderate rain—all without the emissions associated with diesel-powered farm machinery.

The company behind the robots, Aigen, was founded by Rich Weren, an ex-Tesla Engineer, along with former Proofpoint executive Kenny Lee in 2020.

According to the latest available data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, pesticide use in the US reached more than 1.1 billion pounds annually by 2012, with herbicides accounting for nearly 60% of that. Glyphosate was the most used active ingredient this year at between £270m and £290m and has been since 2001.

It is of personal importance to Werden and Lee to reduce producers’ over-reliance on pesticides and heavy use of chemicals in the world’s food supply. Both the founders and several members of their team of 15 had significant health issues related to exposure to pesticides.

The Aigen Element uses computer vision to detect and eliminate weeds without the use of pesticides.

Courtesy: Aigen

Werden, Aigen’s CTO, comes from a farming family that grew sugar beets in Minnesota. Now, he says, his family’s farm grows sorghum and soybeans.

“When I was 15, my pancreas suddenly stopped making insulin,” he said. He always suspected that exposure to pesticides, which is associated with a higher risk of diabetes, was a factor.

As a type 1 diabetic, he has been living with an insulin pump every day since his diagnosis and thinks about the health of his environment.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, Werden worked as a mechanical engineer and in battery technology at Tesla, helping to develop the battery pack used in the company’s best-selling Model 3 and Y, as well as the flagship Model S sedan. He later joined an electric boat startup called Pure Watercraft in Seattle, where he says he caught some of the startup bug.

Lee, the CEO of Aigen, overcame non-Hodgkins lymphoma as a young man and says he cares about both personal and planetary health, having pursued a career in cybersecurity where he is more concerned focused on making the internet a safer place for everyone. (Lee co-founded Weblife.io, which Proofpoint acquired in 2017 in a deal valued at around $60 million.)

Warren and Lee met on a Slack channel called Work on Climate, where tech industry veterans discussed how to refocus or grow their careers while fighting the climate crisis.

Collecting data for analysis of pests and water

Farmers want to be able to see exactly when and where insects appear, for example to eliminate those that pose a risk. They also want irrigation-related analytics that can tell them if their crops are getting enough water and if some parts of the field may need more watering than others.

Typically, a fleet of Element robots would drive continuously across the field, collecting data each time. Currently, the system can provide what is known as a ‘stock count’, analyzing how many healthy plants are in the field.

The Aigen Element runs on solar and wind energy, completely independent of the electricity grid. Additionally, the company runs its analytics and AI machine learning software on-device rather than in the cloud. Because of this, Lee said the company has the potential to offer growers more comprehensive crop analysis.

“While we’re pulling weeds, we can do other things that no other agtech can because we have local mobility.”

Aigen’s agricultural robots are powered by solar and wind energy and have a lithium iron phosphate battery.

Courtesy: Aigen

The element could also help farmers circumvent a persistent agricultural labor shortage and keep their crops healthy even in extreme heat that would make it difficult for people to weed outside in the field.

According to Trent Eidem, who has signed up to use the Aigen Element on his sugar beet farm near Fargo, the robots are also attractive because they could reduce the amount of money farmers spend on costly ‘inputs’, namely herbicides must . Inputs and energy are his biggest budget items, Eidem said.

Over the next year, the company plans to build and bring more of its robots to farmers — and develop additional skills for them, too.

Aigen has raised approximately $7 million in early-stage funding and additional grants from the State of Idaho to develop its system.

Investors include a mix of technology and climate focused seed and venture funds: NEA, Global Founders, Regen Ventures, Bessemer, Climate Tech VC, Cleveland Ave. and a climate fund set up by alumni.Meta Managing Director Mike Schroepfer.

NEA partner Andrew Schoen, which invests in emerging technologies, told CNBC that the Aigen founders’ track record in both software and hardware, as well as the ability to build an “autonomous ground robot” before raising any funds, gave him confidence to invest. He also said that Aigen tackles a major problem for farmers and represents a potentially huge market.

According to Fortune Business Insights forecasts, the global market for pesticides, or “crop protection products,” is expected to exceed $80 billion by 2028. The investor increasingly anticipates that agricultural producers will incorporate robotics into their mix, rather than just chemical inputs.

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