Keeping up with the global food demand would be impossible without the use of pesticides. Farmers are in a constant battle against harmful invaders - or pests. The global market for pesticides is massive, worth US $100 billion to date. While there are many kinds of pests, weeds are perhaps the most diverse and devastating. Herbicides, chemicals which kill nearly every plant, account for $25 billion of the market alone.
Many industrial herbicides are indiscriminate weed killers, chemicals which annihilate every plant they touch. Naturally, the chemicals would destroy all the crops as well - and they should. But agrochemical giants like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont, and Bayer among others have engineered plants able to withstand the indiscriminate chemicals - chemicals which they also engineered and developed.
While current crop spraying methods with indiscriminate killers quickly eradicate weeds, many fears about exposure to crop spraying continue to circulate around the globe. There are grounds for concern, but until now, there have been few alternatives.
There are many different ways to manage pests, but most alternative solutions would fail to keep up with the global food demand. Crop spraying is effective, cheap, and fast. However, robots are providing a promising solution to assist farmers with pest control through autonomous precision weed sprayers.
Pictured in the image above is one such autonomous weed-killing robot helping to change current methods of blanketing fields in harmful chemicals. Designed and engineered at the University of Sydney, the autonomous weed-killing robot uses high-precision spraying nosels to accurately spray small amounts of pesticides in concentrated areas - greatly reducing the demand for herbicide.
The robots are greatly reducing the amount of herbicides necessary to rid a field of weeds. Another weed-killing robot is already roaming the fields in Switzerland, efficiently killing over 95% of the weeds in its path. Powered by solar panels, the robot autonomously hunts for weeds, identifies, and then accurately sprays each one with an herbicide ejected from its mechanical tentacles.
Weed-killing Robots of the Future
While simple in design, the robot reduces the amount of pesticides used by 20 times.
Weighing only 130kg and distributed over four wheels, the robot leaves a minimal impact on the field allowing is to work with more sensitive crops on much larger scales than previously possible.
The weed-killing robot works by analyzing the ground using data collected from a camera mounted at the top of the robot. Then, after detecting a weed, precision sprayers with a span of two meters precisely spray the weeds with an accuracy with less than 2.5 centimeters of error. In just one day, the robot can navigate and weed up to 3 hectares per day while covering 100% of the field - a task far too tricky for large machinery.
Mounted under the machine are two 15 liter tanks allowing for up to two different products to be used at a time. With highly efficient solar cells, the robot can continue to operate autonomously without the worry of running out of power (on sunny days, at least for now).
Weed-Killing Robots Taking Over Agrochemical Giants
The massive reduction of pesticides used with new precision sprayers is allowing for more exotic forms of experimental herbicides to be developed and used. The demand for mass amounts of herbicides will be greatly reduced as weed-killing robots infiltrate the market.
“Because we’re now giving the grower an order of magnitude reduction in the amount of herbicide they’re using, all of a sudden these more expensive, exotic herbicides are now in play again,” said Willy Pell, Blue River director of new technology.
Herbicides will need to be produced in smaller amounts, allowing scientists to focus on developing more effective, and more environmentally sustainable herbicide compounds.
“They’ve actually devoted resources to looking through their backlog, kind of cutting room floor, and rethinking these different materials with our [precision weed-killing] machine in mind,” he added.
The rapid development of efficient weed-killing robots is quickly changing the way farmers are approaching weeding their fields. New research is reducing the operating cost and new autonomous farming robot competition are driving the cost of the robots down.
“If you can reduce herbicides by the factor of 10 it becomes very compelling for the farmer in terms of productivity. It’s also eco-friendly and that’s clearly going to be very popular, if not compulsory, at some stage,” he said.
From Crop Spraying to Farminators - The Future of Farming
Blue River Technology, another industry leader of precision herbicide spraying, is developing a tractor attachment which uses robotic nozzles to automatically target unwanted weeds. While not an autonomous system, the device is still many times more efficient and can be mounted on to a tractor in place of a traditional sprayer.
But these robotic companies are not the only ones developing weed-killing robots. ‘Farminators’, robots which do farm work, are taking over the farming industry by storm.
Surprisingly, the change is being welcomed by the farming community.
“It’s farmers who are driving this because labour is in short supply and they are looking for technological assistance,” says Salah Sukkarieh of the University of Sydney, a scientist investigating his own fleet of farminators.
There are many companies who have successfully developed autonomous seeders, harvesters, and other autonomous farming processors, although the robots have yet to make a large impact on the herbicide industry. But researchers say the technology is ready to take over.
“A lot of the technology is already available. It’s just a question of packaging it together at the right cost for the farmers,” said Richard Lightbound, Robo’s CEO for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Big Companies Buy-in
Large companies like John Deere and Robert Bossch, among many other smaller companies like ecoRobotix and Blue River, are already buying into and developing precision spraying robotic equipment.
While John Deere still produces commercial sprayers, they have only made marginal gains in efficiency and cost, while leaving the environmental damages practically unchanged. Instead, they are joining the movement on developing precision spraying robots, leaving crop spraying for the dust.
“The fact that a tractor and row-crop oriented company such as John Deere did this means it won’t be long before corn or soybean farmers in the U.S. Midwest will start using precision spraying,” said Jeneiv Shah, deputy manager of the Sarasin Food & Agriculture Opportunities.