Volvo creates a dedicated business for autonomous industrial and commercial transport

Volvo Group has established a new dedicated business group focused on autonomous transportation, with a mandate that covers industry segments like mining, ports and moving goods between logistics hubs of all kinds. The vehicle maker has already been active in putting autonomous technology to work in these industries, with self-driving projects including at a few quarries and mines, and in the busy port located at Gothenburg, Sweden.

The company sees demand for this kind of autonomous technology use growing, and decided to establish an entire business unit to address it. The newly-formed group will be called Volvo Autonomous Solutions, and its official mission is to “accelerate the development, commercialization and sales of autonomous transport solutions,” focused on the kind of transportation “where there is a need to move large volumes of goods and material on pre-defeined routes, in receptive flows.”

Their anticipation of the growth of this sector comes in part from direct customer feedback, the automaker notes. It’s seen “significant increase in inquires from customers,” according to a statement from Martin Lundstedt, Volvo Group’s President and CEO.

Officially, Volvo Autonomous Solutions won’t be a formal new business area under its parent company until January 2020, but the company is looking for a new head of the unit already, and it’s clear they see a lot of potential in this bourgeoning market.

Unlike autonomous driving for consumer automobiles, this kind of self-driving for fixed route goods transportation is a nice match to the capabilities of technology as they exist today. These industrial applications eliminate a lot of the chaos and complexity of driving in, say, urban environments and with a lot of other human-driven vehicles on the road, and their routes are predictable and repeatable.

The Station: A new self-driving car startup, Inside Tesla’s V10 software, Lilium’s big round

If you haven’t heard, TechCrunch has officially launched a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future — whether it’s by bike, bus, scooter, car, train, truck, flying car, robotaxi or rocket. Heck, maybe even via hyperloop.

Earlier this year, we piloted a weekly transportation newsletter. Now, we’re back with a new name and a format that will be delivered into your inbox every Saturday morning. We’re calling it The Station, your hub of all things transportation. I’m your host, senior transportation reporter Kirsten Korosec.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This isn’t a solo effort. Expect analysis and insight from senior reporter Megan Rose Dickey, who has been covering micromobility. TechCrunch reporter Jake Bright will occasionally provide insight into electric motorcycles, racing and the startup scene in Africa. And then of course, there are other TechCrunch staffers who will weigh in from their stations in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming. Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

A new autonomous vehicle company on the scene

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Deeproute.ai is the newest company to receive a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Here is what we know so far. The Chinese startup just raised $50 million in a pre-Series A funding round led by Fozun RZ Capital, the Beijing-based venture capital arm of Chinese conglomerate Fosun International. The company has research centers in Shenzhen, Beijing and Silicon Valley and is aiming to build a full self-driving stack that can handle Level 4 automation, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.

Deeproute.ai is also a supplier for China’s second-largest automaker Dongfeng Motor, according to TechNode. The startup plans to offer robotaxi services in partnership with Dongfeng Motor for the Military World Games in the city of Wuhan next month.

Snapshot: Tesla Smart Summon

the station electric vehicles1Remember way back in September when Tesla started rolling out its V10 software update? The software release was highly anticipated in large part because it included Smart Summon, an autonomous parking feature that allows owners to use their app to summon their vehicles from a parking space.

We have some insight into the rollout, courtesy of TezLab, a Brooklyn-based startup that developed a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle. Tesla owners who download the app can track their efficiency, total trip miles and use it to control certain functions of the vehicle, such as locking and unlocking the doors, and heating and air conditioning. TezLab, which has 20,000 active users and logs more than 1 million events a day, has become a massive repository of Tesla data.

TezLab shared the data set below that shows the ebb and flow of Tesla’s software updates. The X axis shows the date (of every other bar) and a timestamp of midnight. (Because this is a screenshot, you can’t toggle over it to see the time.)

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This data shows when Tesla started pushing out the V10 software as well as when it held it back. The upshot? Notice the pop on September 27. That’s when the public rollout began in earnest, then dipped, then spiked again on October 3 and then dropped for almost a week. That lull followed a slew of social media postings demonstrating and complaining about the Smart Summon feature, suggesting that Tesla slowed the software release.

A geofencing bright spot

Speaking of Smart Summon, you might have seen the Consumer Reports review of the feature. In short, the consumer advocacy group called it “glitchy” and wondered if it offered any benefits to customers. I spoke to CR and learned a bit more. CR notes that Tesla is clear in its manual about the limitations of this beta product. The organization’s criticism is that people don’t have insight into these limitations when they buy the “Full Self-Driving” feature, which costs thousands of dollars. (CEO Elon Musk just announced the price will go up another $1,000 on November 1.)

One encouraging sign is that CR determined that the Smart Summon feature was able (most of the time) to recognize when it was on a public road. Smart Summon is only supposed to be used in private areas. “This is the first we’ve seen Tesla geofence this technology and that is a bright spot,” CR told me.

Deal of the week

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There were plenty of deals in the past week, but the one that stood out — for a variety of reasons — involved German urban air mobility startup Lilium . Editor Ingrid Lunden had the scoop that Lilium has been talking to investors to raise between $400 million and $500 million. The size of this yet-to-be-closed round and who might be investing is what got our attention.

Lilium has already raised more than $100 million in financing from investors, including WeChat owner and Chinese internet giant Tencent, Atomico, which was founded by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström, and Obvious Ventures, the early-stage VC fund co-founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams. International private banking and asset management group LGT and Freigeist (formerly called e42) are also investors.

TechCrunch is still hunting down details about who might be investing, as well as Lilium’s valuation. (You can always reach out with a tip.)

Lunden was able to ferret out a few important nuggets from sources, including that Tencent is apparently in this latest round and the startup has been pitching new investors since at least this spring. The round has yet to close. Lilium isn’t the only urban air mobility — aka flying cars — startup that been shaking the investor trees for money the past six months. Lilium’s challenge is attempting to raise a bigger round than others in an unproven market.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. For the unfamiliar, a little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip. Sometimes, like this week, we’re just helping to connect the dots to determine where a company is headed.

Aurora, an autonomous vehicle startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, published a blog post that lay outs its plans to integrate its self-driving stack into multiple vehicle platforms. Those plans now include long-haul trucks.

Self-driving trucks are so very hot right now. Aurora is banking on its recent acquisition of lidar company Blackmore to give it an edge. Aurora has integrated into a Class 8 truck its self-driving stack known as “Aurora Driver.” We hear that Aurora isn’t announcing any partnerships — at least not now — but it’s signaling a plan to push into this market.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Keep (self) truckin’

the station semi truck

Ike, the autonomous trucking startup founded by veterans of Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s self-driving truck program, has always cast itself as the cautious-we’ve-been-around-the-block-already company.

That hasn’t changed. Last week, Ike released a lengthy safety report and accompanying blog post. It’s beefy. But here are a few of the important takeaways. Ike is choosing not to test on public roads after a year of development, unlike most others in the space. Ike has a fleet of four Class 8 trucks outfitted with its self-driving stack as well as a Toyota Prius used for mapping and data collection. The trucks are driven manually, (a second engineer always in the passenger seat) on public roads. The automation system is then tested on a track.

There are strong incentives to demonstrate rapid progress with autonomous vehicle technology, and testing on public roads has been part of that playbook. And Ike’s founders are taking a different path; and we hear that the approach was embraced, not rejected, by investors. 

Screen Shot 2019 10 12 at 7.56.36 AM

In the next issue of the newsletter, check out snippets from an interview with Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at Ike. We dig into the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis (STPA) as the foundation for Ike’s product development.

In other AV truck-related news, Kodiak Robotics just hired Jamie Hoffacker as its head of hardware. Hoffacker came from Lyft’s Level 5 self-driving vehicle initiative and also worked on Google’s Street View vehicles. The company tells me that Hoffacker is key to its aim of building a product that can be manufactured, not just a prototype. Check out Hoffacker’s blog post to get his perspective.

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

Bird’s chief legal & policy officer is leaving the company

Bird, the $2.5 billion electric scooter business, is losing its chief legal and policy officer. David Estrada, who was hired last year from Kitty Hawk, is joining another mobility company, SoftBank-backed Nuro.

A spokesperson for Bird tells TechCrunch Estrada is leaving the Santa Monica-based company to be closer to his family. Nuro, for its part, is based in Mountain View, CA.

davidestrada

Bird’s former chief legal officer, David Estrada.

Estrada, who previously oversaw public policy at the electric aircraft company Kitty Hawk as its chief legal officer, has been responsible for Bird’s compliance and government relations efforts as the company scaled to over 100 global cities. Prior to joining Kitty Hawk, Estrada spent nearly two years as Lyft’s vice president of government relations and worked as the legal director for Google X, partnering with states on legislation around autonomous vehicles, Google Glass and drone delivery.

Nuro, founded in June 2016, has emerged as a key player in the rapidly-expanding autonomous delivery sector. The company has attracted a whopping $1.03 billion in venture capital funding to date, according to Pitchbook. SoftBank funneled an astounding $940 million into the business earlier this year at an undisclosed valuation. In addition to SoftBank, Nuro is backed by Greylock and the Chinese venture capital firm Gaorong Capital.

The company has been developing a self-driving stack and combining it with a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. It began piloting grocery delivery in 2018 in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.

Bird has overcome a number of unique hurdles with many more afoot, including pushback from local governments who were aggravated by the sudden appearance of hundreds of scooters. At Nuro, Estrada will have the opportunity to focus on the future of unmanned delivery, another sector faced with regulatory challenges and political barriers.

Announcing TechCrunch Robotics & AI on March 3, 2020 at UC Berkeley

Robotics is back! We are excited to announce that on March 3 next year TechCrunch will host its fourth annual TC Sessions: Robotics & AI at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

Last year, 1500 founders, technologists, engineering students and investors turned up for a day of main stage interviews with the top figures in AI and robotics, as well as workshops, speaker Q&A, and intense networking. The show aims to sit at the intersection of straight-up technology and robotics startups, a zone that’s getting richer every year thanks to rapid advances in AI, GPUs, sensors, and all the other related fields.

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, a regular guest at the show, sums up the show this way: “TechCrunch’s AI / Robotics show blends the best of thoughtful, research-focused robotics with a unique business in technology focus. The result is an event that not only shows cutting edge technology but provides perspective of how it will be impacting business soon.”

Last year, we officially added AI to the title of the show, a recognition that AI is perhaps the single biggest driver behind rapid advancement in robotics. As serial medical robotics entrepreneur Dr. Frederic Moll said at TechCrunch Disrupt SF earlier this week, “Everybody focuses on the mechatronic part of robotics, but what’s going to change the world is the intelligence of robotics.”

Get ready for TechCrunch editorial interviews with the world’s top robotics and AI expert, newsmaking demos, super edifying workshops, and fantastic networking. Whether you’re looking for technology and product insights, investment, engineeringing talent, new partners or all of the above, no show delivers more in a single day than TC Sessions: Robotics & AI.

If you want to get a sense of agendas from our past shows, check out past agendas: 2017 @ MIT, 2018 @UC Berkeley, 2019 @ UC Berkely.

Register your interest today for the event and you’ll save $100 off tickets when sales launch.

Interested in sponsoring the event? Fill out this form and our sales team will get right back to you.

NASA awards $43.2M to Blue Origin, SpaceX and others for tech to take us to the Moon and Mars

NASA has announced the total funding it will distribute to the 14 companies it’s chosen to work with on developing key, innovative technologies that will be instrumental in helping get the agency to the Moon through the Artemis program, and potentially to Mars and beyond later on.

The U.S. space agency is awarding $43.2 million to the companies, in varying amounts ranging from $1.3 million to as much as $10 million (going to Blue Origin) for the most lucrative contract.

NASA announced in July a similar series of partnerships selected to further its Moon shot program, which also included SpaceX and Blue Origin. This new “Tipping Point” partnership program round includes Blue Origin, as mentioned, as well as SpaceX, OxEon Energy, Skyre, SpaceX, Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen, Paragon Space, TallannQuest, Accion Systems, CU Aerospace, ExoTerra, Blue Canyon Technologies, Astrobotic Technology, Intuitive Machines and Luna Innovations.

It includes projects that range from developing autonomous navigation for satellites, better propulsion systems, rover tech, advanced spacecraft avionics, cryogenic propellant and more.

Blue Origin will be using its $10 million to develop a ground-based demonstration of liquefying hydrogen and oxygen, and storing the resulting liquid. This will demonstrate the viability of producing and storing liquid rocket propellant on the Moon, and will be a key step toward the development of a Moon-based propellant production plant.

Meanwhile, SpaceX will be working with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama to build nozzles that will be used in spacecraft refueling operations. This tech will be crucial to SpaceX’s Starship, which Elon Musk said on Saturday will need to refuel ship-to-space tanker in orbit in order to load in enough propellant post Earth-based launch to make the rest of the trip to the Moon and Mars. NASA awarded SpaceX $3 million to support this project.

Astrobotic is working with Carnegie Mellon University with a $2 million investment from NASA in order to develop and build small rovers that can carry light payloads and work in tandem with large landers. These would act like advance scouts to work on researching and readying landing and base sites on the Moon. The concept illustration above depicts one of these proposed rover designs.

For the full list of projects, and the amount awarded to each, check out the official NASA announcement of the Tipping Point partnerships.

Last year’s Gatwick drone attack involved at least two drones, say police

A major drone incident at the UK’s second business airport last year continues to baffle police.

Last December a series of drone sightings near Gatwick Airport caused chaos as scores of flights were grounded and thousands of travellers had their holiday plans disrupted.

The incident, which took place during a peak travel period ahead of Christmas, led to the airport being closed for 30 hours, disrupting 1,000 flights and more than 140,000 passengers.

Today Sussex Police have released an update on their multi-month investigation into who was operating the drones — with thin findings, saying they have “identified, researched and ruled out 96 people ‘of interest’”.

Although they are now sure that drones played a part in the disruption. The report confirms that at least two drones were involved. The police are also convinced the perpetrator or perpetrators had detailed knowledge of the airport.

“The police investigation has centred on 129 separate sightings of drone activity, 109 of these from credible witnesses used to working in a complex airport environment including a pilot, airport workers and airport police,” the force writes.

“Witness statements show activity happened in ‘groupings’ across the three days on 12 separate occasions, varying in length from between seven and 45 minutes. On six of these occasions, witnesses clearly saw two drones operating simultaneously.”

“The incident was not deemed terror-related and there is no evidence to suggest it was either state-sponsored, campaign or interest-group led. No further arrests have been made,” it adds.

The policing operation during the disruption and subsequent investigation has cost £790,000 so far.

Sussex Police is drawing a line under its investigation at this point, saying without new information coming to light “there are no further realistic lines of enquiry at this time”. 

The chaos caused by drones shutting Gatwick led to sharp criticism of the government which rushed through tighter restrictions on drone flights near airports.

Shortly after the Gatwick debacle drone maker DJI also updated its geofencing system across Europe.

A comprehensive UK drone bill — intended to beef up police powers to curb drone misuse, and which could contain policy on flight information notification systems — has remained stalled.

In a ‘future of drones’ report published at the start of this year ministers said they intended to bring the bill forward this year. But the government is fast running out of parliamentary time to do so.

It had already made provision to introduce mandatory drone registration.

From November 30 it will be a legal requirement for all UK drone operators to register, as well as for drone pilots to complete an online pilot competency test.

While Sussex Police have ruled out the Gatwick drone incident being related to a campaign or interest-group, earlier this month an environmental group attempted to shut down Heathrow using toy drones flown at head height in the legal restriction zone.

The Heathrow Pause protest action did not result in any disruption to flights. Police arrested a number of activists before and after they flew drones.

Boston Dynamics puts its robotic quadruped Spot up for sale

Since the days of BigDog, the quadrupedal robots of Boston Dynamics have impressed and repelled us. But while the early, bulky robots never felt like something we’d see in real life, the company’s latest and greatest creation, Spot, is not only quite real, but now for sale — in fact, some people have had them for months already.

Boston Dynamics announced on our stage at TC Sessions: Robotics last year that Spot, previously known as SpotMini, would be its first commercial product — and we got the first peek at the production version at this year’s conference in May. It’s an incredibly impressive and flexible robotics platform capable of navigating a variety of environments and interacting with many everyday objects and obstacles. And while today is the first day of official sales, there are already robots out there in use.

“We’re putting Spots out into the wild as we speak,” Boston Dynamics VP of business development Michael Perry told TechCrunch. “Last month we started delivering robots to customers, as part of an early adopter program. The question we’re posing to these early customers is ‘what do you think spot can do for you that’s valuable?’ We had some initial ideas, but it’s all our thinking and the hope is that this program will enable a whole new set of use cases.”

The early adopter program is lease-based rather than a straight purchase, but there’s no shortage of customers who want to own their Spot outright. The cost of one of the robots varies, but think tens of thousands of dollars — this isn’t a hobby bot.

“The general guidance is that the entire early adopter program is going to be about the price of a car, but how nice of a car depends on a lot,” said Perry.

Some people might want a bare-bones platform onto which they can integrate their own sensing and interaction tech. Others might want a fully functional robot they can plug into their existing automation workflow.

But either way, it will take some work on the part of the customer. Spot isn’t going to inspect that oil pipeline or patrol a facility with the push of a button. It’s a powerful, flexible legged robot platform, but Boston Dynamics isn’t running a turn-key service.

“We’re now at a phase where we don’t have to send out 12 engineers with the robot,” said Perry. “Say a customer wants to operate it close to people — it needs to detect people and change its behavior. That’s totally possible. We can actually leave it with them, give them access to our GitHub repo, and say ‘have at it.’ But if someone says they just want it built into the robot… We want people to have realistic expectations about what it can do.”

That said, you don’t need to present a whole whitepaper on your intentions. A lot of companies just want to buy a couple of these guys to play around with and test. If you’re one of those, or perhaps a smaller operation with more specific goals in mind, get in touch with Boston Dynamics and its sales team via the link here.

“We have a deluge of people emailing us,” he lamented. “Some are legitimate applications, but some just want Spot as a pet, or to get them a beer from the fridge. It would be thrilling to accommodate them, but we’re not quite there yet.”

No word on when you’ll be able to buy an Atlas.

Aptiv and Hyundai form new joint venture focused on autonomous driving

Automaker Hyundai is forming a new joint venture with autonomous driving technology company Aptiv, with both parties taking a 50 percent ownership stake in the new company. The goal of the new venture will be to develop Level 4 and Level 5 production-ready self-driving systems intended for commercialization, with the goal of making those available to robotaxi and fleet operators, as well as other auto makers, by 2022.

The combined investment in the joint venture from both companies will total $4 billion in aggregate value (including the value of combined engineering services, R&D and IP) initially, according to Aptiv and Hyundai, and testing for their fully autonomous systems will begin in 2020 in pursuit of that 2022 commercialization target.

In terms of what each is bringing to the table, Aptiv will be delivering its autonomous driving tech, which it has been developing for many years – originally as part of global automative industry supplier Delphi – as well as 700 employees working on AV tech. Hyundai Motor Group will provide a combined $1.6 billion in cash from across its subrands, vehicle engineering, R&D and access to its IP.

Heading up the new joint venture will be Karl Iagnemma, the President of Aptiv’s Autonomous Mobility group, and it’ll be headquartered in Boston and supported by additional technology centres in multiple locations in the U.S. and Asia.

Both companies have been demonstrating autonomous vehicle technologies for multiple years now, and Aptiv has been working with Lyft in Las Vegas on a public trial of autonomous robotaxi services since debuting the capabilities at CES in 2018. Aptiv’s Vegas pilot uses BMW 5-Series cars for its autonomous pick-up fleet.

This joint venture should help them with brining the technology to market with the scale of a global automaker, while Hyundai gains by being able to shore up its own work in self-driving with a partner who has invested in developing these solutions as a primary concern over many years.

Take cover, it’s a drone with a nail gun!

The FAA has warned against equipping your drone with weapons such as flamethrowers and handguns. But can a nail gun really be considered a weapon — that is, outside of Quake? Let’s hope not, because roboticists at the University of Michigan have made a roofing drone that uses that tool to autonomously nail shingles into place.

In a video shot in UM’s special drone testing habitat, the craft flies up, approaches its bit of roof, and gingerly applies the nail gun before backing off and doing it a couple more times.

It’s very much just a tech demonstration right now, with lots of room to improve. For one thing the drone doesn’t use onboard cameras, but rather a system of static cameras and markers nearby that can tell exactly where the drone is and where it needs to go.

This is simpler to start with, but eventually such a drone should be able to use its own vision system to find the point where to touch down. Compared with a lot of the computer vision tasks being accomplished out there, finding the corner of a roof tile is pretty tame.

Currently the drone is also free flying and uses an electric nail gun; This limits its flight time to about 10 minutes and a few dozen nails. It would be better for it to use a tether carrying power and air cables, so it could stay aloft indefinitely and use a more powerful pneumatic nail gun.

Drones are already used for lots of industrial applications, from inspecting buildings to planting trees, and this experiment shows one more area where they could be put to work. Roofing can be both dull and dangerous, and rote work like attaching shingles may as well be done by a drone overseen by an expert as by that expert’s own hands.

The drone is the subject of a paper (“Nailed it: Autonomous roofing with a nailgun-equipped octocopter”) by UM’s Matthew Romano and others, submitted for the International Conference on Robotics and Automation later this year.

FarmWise and its weed-pulling agribot harvest $14.5M in funding

Automating agriculture is a complex proposition given the number and variety of tasks involved, but a number of robotics and autonomy companies are giving it their best shot. FarmWise seems to have impressed someone — it just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle.

Currently in the prototype stage, these vehicles look like giant lumbering personnel carriers or the like, but are in fact precision instruments which scan the ground for invasive weeds among the crop and carefully pluck them out.

“Each day, one FarmWise robot can weed crops to feed a medium-sized city of approximately 400,000 inhabitants,” said FarmWise CEO Sebastien Boyer in a press release announcing the latest funding round. “We are now enhancing the scale and depth of our proprietary plant-detection technology to help growers with more of their processes and on more of their crops.”

Presumably the robot was developed and demonstrated with something of a specialty in one crop or another, more as a proof of concept than anything.

Well, it seems to have proved the concept. The new $14.5 million round, led by Calibrate Ventures, is likely due to the success of these early trials. This is far from an easy problem, so going from idea to nearly market-ready in under three years is pretty impressive. Farmers love tech — if it works. And tiny issues or error rates can lead to enormous problems with the vast monoculture fields that make up the majority of U.S. farms.

The company previously took in about $5.7 million in a seed round, following its debut on Alchemist Accelerator’s demo day back in 2017. Robots are expensive!

Hopefully the cash infusion will help propel FarmWise from prototype to commercialization, though it’s hard to imagine they could build more than a handful of the machines with that kind of money. Perhaps they’ll line up a couple big orders and build on that future revenue.

Meanwhile they’ll continue to develop the AI that powers the chunky, endearing vehicles.

“Looking ahead, our robots will increasingly act as specialized doctors for crops, monitoring individual health and adjusting targeted interventions according to a crop’s individual needs,” said Boyer. So not only will these lumbering platforms delicately remove weeds, but they’ll inspect for aphids and fungus and apply the necessary remedies.

With that kind of inspection they can make a data play later — what farmer wouldn’t want to be able to digitally inspect every plant in their fields?