Bloom Automation brings robotics to marijuana cultivation …

marijuana tweed canopy growth

Thomas
Shipley prunes marijuana buds before they are processed for
shipping at Tweed Marijuana Inc in Smith’s Falls,
Ontario.
Blair
Gable/Reuters

Every summer, tens of thousands of migrant workers swarm a remote
area of Northern California — the marijuana-growing capital of
the US — to find work as “trimmers” after the weed has been
harvested.

Their job is to prune the fluffy, green buds with small
pairs of scissors to clear them of leaves before they wind up on
dispensary shelves or in dealers’ pockets.

The work is arduous and pays between $100 and $300 a
day for 10 to 15 hours of labor on the black market, which

generated 87% of pot sales
in North America in
2016.

A startup based in the Boston area hopes to revolutionize
the increasingly legal marijuana industry by assigning robots to
the task.

Bloom Automation is developing a robot that uses cameras
and computer vision to discern leaves from the smokeable stuff,
and cut away the unwanted material. A prototype unit can trim a
typical eight-inch to 18-inch marijuana branch in as little as
four minutes.

The startup is planning a late 2017 commercial launch. If Bloom
Automation is able to bring up the machine’s level of accuracy
and lower its cost (which is currently upwards of $20,000), its
robot could someday replace human trimmers at marijuana
cultivation sites.

“We’re not aiming to take anyone’s job — just improve efficiency
and alleviate a significant pain point,” says Jon Gowa, founder
and CEO of Bloom Automation.

The machine relies on a human operator to ensure the branches
load properly. Gowa says it doesn’t require a mechanical
engineering degree to handle.

bloom automation prototype 2

Bloom Automation’s marijuana-trimming robot can prune
about one pound of pot a day.
Bloom
Automation

Marijuana buds are trimmed because well-manicured weed looks
better and tends to fetch higher prices at dispensaries. The
leaves also have a lower concentration of
THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. A medical
marijuana patient who buys an eighth of an ounce of untrimmed bud
gets less value for their money than they would buying trimmed
pot.

While trimming kush might sound like a cushy gig, it’s
actually one
of the hardest jobs in the marijuana black market
. A blogger
who made $5,000 (after food and alcohol expenses) over five
weeks in Northern California’s trim trade
wrote
, “After a few weeks your hands are calloused,
your lower back crippled, your wrists ache, and all the days
merge into a green haze.”

In California’s marijuana-growing regions,
some trimmers — called “trimmigrants” — come from outside
the US. Many are
effectively homeless
. They camp in parks and
alleyways. Female trimmigrants working in the
male-dominated growing community can face danger.
Stories of sexual assault, rape, and exploitation run rampant in
the region
, though few survivors press charges, according to
a 2016 investigation by Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter.

Bloom Automation puts the trimming task in the hands of
robots.

The robot prototype stands about three feet tall. Marijuana
branches, which hold the buds on smaller stalks, slide down a
conveyor belt. High-resolution cameras capture images of the
branch from several angles, and a proprietary algorithm figures
out which material is undesired leaves. An arm that hangs above
the conveyor belt trims away the leaves.

bloom automation prototype

Bloom Automation is developing a robot that uses
cameras and computer vision to discern leaves from the stuff you
smoke, and cut away the unwanted material.
Bloom Automation

The robot can trim about one pound of marijuana a day, which is
on par with a human trimmer’s average. Gowa says the company is
working to increase its accuracy to about 80% of a human’s
ability.

Bloom Automation, which is currently enrolled in a marijuana
startup accelerator called CanopyBoulder, hopes to start testing
the robot at cultivation sites in Colorado this summer. It’s
targeting a retail launch at the end of 2017 and expects to
attract mid-size cultivators.

The robot’s cost will likely be prohibitive for the vast majority
of small-time marijuana growers. A cultivator with about 5,000
square feet of production space would require one to two robots,
according to Gowa, which could run up a bill over $40,000.

Gowa is hopeful that cultivators who contract trimmers at the
start of the harvest will find new roles for those humans, like
operating the robot.

“While autonomous, they’re not fully autonomous. They need an
operator,” Gowa says. “With the deployment of robots, you also
get employment.”

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