About: Joe Jones - Cofounder and CTO
Joseph Jones is cofounder/CTO of Franklin Robotics. His primary interest is the practical application of robotic technology to real-world problems. Previous experiences include cofounding Harvest Automation, proposing and developing iRobot’s Roomba, and serving on the research staff at the MIT AI Lab. A graduate of MIT he holds 60+ patents.
1. With the inventions of weeding robots like Tertill, farming/gardening is taking a giant automated leap forward. What’s your opinion on these improvements?
The improvements are necessary and timely. A UN report* concludes that by 2050 food production must increase by 70% to meet expected demand. Satisfying this need will require advances in all aspects of growing food from biology to automation to farm practices. Developing robotic methods able to improve efficiency and yield in a sustainable way is a critical part of the solution.
2. How reliable is the Tertill and how much maintenance is required to take care of this weed whacking robot?
We’ve worked hard to design a robot able to withstand the rigors of working full time in the garden. Our goal is that the gardeners set up the robot in the spring, bring it back indoors around harvest time, and do almost no maintenance in between. We are, however, unlikely to achieve perfection with our very first model. Tertill has a smartphone-based app that can alert the user if something goes wrong (e.g. a vine wraps around a wheel) and we recommend that gardeners check the robot when they visit their gardens—at least once per week. The whacker string will require occasional maintenance depending on local soil conditions.
3. Do you think farmers are in the right frame of mind to invest in robotic technology?
Farmers are smart business people. They don’t rush to adopt unproven technology but neither do they hesitate to purchase new products that will improve their bottom line. The onus is on robot manufacturers to prove that our products truly earn their keep. Once we have done this, farmers will rapidly embrace robotic products.
4. How are agriculture based companies using this weeding robot to gain more productive yield?
Our robot doesn’t ship until later this year, so currently it’s not increasing yield. But when Tertill does ship we expect it to improve productivity in several ways. Weeds compete with crops for water, nutrients, and sunlight. With the robot on duty, that competition will stop and crops will have more of the resources they need to grow. Weeds can also create conditions that harbor disease and insect pests. Robots will remove those safe havens, so crops can be healthier and there may be less need for insecticides.
5. What are your other upcoming robotic projects that are poised to enable the safe, efficient and economical production of food?
I can’t comment in detail on our specific plans or timetable. However, our mission is to develop technology to feed the world sustainably. The venues we’re investigating include both gardens and farms; operations include weeding, discouraging pests, collecting data, and harvesting crops.
6. According to the International Federation of Robotics, agricultural robots will be the fastest growing market segment of the robotics industry by 2020. Do you agree with this statement? What are your views on this?
The technology is ready. Although predicting market growth is beyond my expertise, I believe that all the critical pieces are in place or nearly so. The needed sensors, energy sources, and computational hardware are available. All that’s missing are entrepreneurs who can creatively apply those components to particular tasks. This objective is neither simple nor straightforward but it is within reach. It’s a very exciting time in agricultural robotics!