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Stay Metal: An Inside Look at the Robovator

As technology seeks to make the fresh produce industry more efficient and cost-effective, precision ag is an increasingly sought-after resource to incorporate.

Pacific Ag Rentals (PAR), based in produce-centric Salinas, California, offers just this. When exploring the company’s portfolio of machines, the Robovator caught my eye—and not just for its Terminator-like name. An optic-based hoeing machine made for controlling weeds in row crops, the Robovator is easy to operate and can be manned by a single person with a smartphone, laptop, or by its own display.

“We represent the Robovator made by Frank Poulsen of Vision Weeding,” PAR’s President, Bartley Walker, tells me. “The company is based out of Denmark, and we have been working with this product for the past two years as its Western U.S. distributor.”

When we discuss how this tool became part of PAR’s portfolio, Bart tells me he talked to growers all over Europe to find out which automated weeding method was the best.

“There are four options being used overseas, and everyone I spoke to named this one as being, undoubtedly, the best,” Bart tells me. “We purchase Vision Weeding’s machines and bring them to our Salinas facility, where we upgrade them to handle our challenging farming conditions, increasing the reliability and strength of those machines.”

We have found that this automatic weeder does the work of 11 people and cuts costs down significantly.
- Bartley Walker, President, Pacific Ag Rentals

Available exclusively through Bart’s company, this machine is one for the books with its cutting-edge technology and the savings it provides growers in time and money.

Hydraulically operated and requiring minimal maintenance, the Robovator’s software is installed automatically to weed around transplanted or direct-seeded vegetables, and can be updated with new software. Easily adjusted to any field row spacing between 25 and 75 centimeters, or 9 and 30 inches, each row of the machine has its own camera, and the machine is self-centering with an automatic side-shift feature.

“A recent audit amongst grower/shippers looked into the top 10 challenges for industry operators, and number one on the list was all things to do with labor,” Bart explains. “We have found that this automatic weeder does the work of 11 people and cuts costs down significantly.”

In addition to easing labor challenges, the Robovator’s productivity is undeniable. Operating at a speed of 1.2 to 5 miles per hour, a single machine can complete 10 acres a day during daylight hours alone, Bart tells me. If you have someone operating it through the night, a lot of ground can be covered very quickly.

According to Vision Weeding, the Robovator weighs a light and easy 1,500 pounds for manageable operation and offers a low-power consumption rate of about one horsepower per row, supplied by the power take-off (PTO) of a tractor. Not like a tractor, however, is the autonomous technology of several knives closing down around weeds, as deep as an inch-and-a-half beneath the soil, while opening carefully around growing crops.

A Pacific Ag Rentals employee operates the Robovator

The Robovator, in Bart’s opinion, is hugely beneficial to both organic growers, who already have limited weeding options, and conventional growers looking for a weeding option that will give them an edge for chemical-wary consumers.

“This is another tool for fighting weeds that helps farmers keep their soil around as long as possible. If we can cut down the amount of inputs while still turning over a good crop, isn’t that an even better way of doing what we already do?” Bart posits, giving me a motto that I will surely carry with me throughout my produce career: “Stay metal where you can.”

For those with an eye toward the future, the innovative Frank Poulsen is working on a new generation of Robovator that is, quite literally, hot stuff.

Thermal weeding will satisfy anyone who is fascinated with technology...or fire. In slow motion, streams of flame individually annihilate weeds that threaten the plants in a sugar beet row or a lettuce line planted in dry soil. And, yes, it’s as cool as it sounds. This, however, is something Bart is more curious about than sold on as the weeding method of the future.

Streams of flame individually annihilate weeds that threaten the plants in a sugar beet row or a lettuce line planted in dry soil. And, yes, it’s as cool as it sounds.

“The thermal-style weeder is a design which Frank sees as a next revolution in weeding. I haven’t heard that many are a fan of pulling a tank of propane, which is a necessary part of it, but I will say that it is using insane plant-weed detection to isolate and burn the weed,” Bart relays with the same level of enthusiasm I felt while watching the machine in action.

If you aren’t sold just yet on how this can benefit you, however, you can always rent! PAR allows you to rent the Robovator, along with someone to operate it if you are like me and worry about not being tech-savvy.

“One of the problems in bringing in these new technologies is not having support, but at PAR, we provide local, boots-on-the-ground support on all of our products. Our main focus is to drive value to the farmer and increase their efficiencies, and we believe this Robovator does just that,” Bart says. “The take-home point is it takes the limited labor supply and allows the farmer to allocate those workers to areas where we lack automation.”

When engineering, technology, and agriculture come together, a beautiful space is made in both the time and finances of growers. By saving dollars for the provider, their retail partners, and the end-consumers, we are left to do what we love—grow.