Robotic weed control systems mark a new era in crop protection

The-prototype-of-an-autonomous-weeding-machine-by-Swiss-start-up-ecoRobotix-is-pictured-during-tests-on-a-sugar-beet-field-near-Bavois

Robotic weeders will significantly reduce the amount of herbicide used to control weeds in crops.

The development of a new breed of artificial intelligence (AI) weeders has the potential to disrupt the $100 billion pesticides industry by significantly reducing the need for universal herbicides.

According to an article in The Express Tribune, the development of machines such as one produced by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix, have the ability to scan crop rows with a camera, identify weeds and zap them. The company predicts its design, which is solar-powered and self-driven, could reduce the amount of herbicide farmers use 20-fold.

Similarly, Blue River, a Silicon Valley startup (bought by US tractor company Deere and Co. for $305 million) has developed its “See and Spray” machine which uses on-board cameras to distinguish weeds from crops and apply the herbicide directly to the weeds.

Towed by a tractor, the “See and Spray” machine has been trialled in US cotton crops and developers estimate it could cut herbicide use by 90 per cent once crops are established.

These companies are not alone in developing precision spray equipment and ROBO Global, an advisory firm that runs a robotics and automation investment index, believes plant-by-plant precision spraying will only gain in importance.

Richard Lightbound, ROBO’s CEO for Europe, Middle East and Africa says a lot of technology is already available, it just a question of packaging it together at the right cost for farmers.

“If you can reduce herbicides by the factor of 10, it becomes very compelling for the farmer in terms of productivity. It is also eco-friendly and that’s clearly going to be very popular, if not compulsory, at some stage.”

So, what does the advent of these precision weeders mean for the $26 billion-a-year agrochemical industry? According to the article, companies such as Bayer, DowDuPont, BASF and Syngenta are bracing for the impact of digital agricultural technology and some are already adapting their business models.

Bayer has sought partners for its own precision spraying systems, while ChemChina’s Syngenta is looking to develop crop protection products suited to the new equipment.

One food supply chain commentator predicts that some of the profit pools, which are now in the hands of the big agrochemical companies will shift, partly to farmers and partly to the equipment manufacturers.

This targeted-plant approach to weed control marks a new era in crop protection.

Internationally, the blanket spraying of herbicides such as glyphosate is under fire from environmentalists and regulators as debate continues over glyphosate’s toxicity and its potential impact on human health.

It has been estimated that the development of a next-generation universal weedkiller would cost agrochemical giants $400 million, an investment they are unlikely to make with the emergence of precision-spraying equipment.

Instead, the industry is reviving and reformulating older, broad-spectrum agents such as dicamba and 2,4-D. Precision spraying could also mean established herbicides, whose effect has worn off on some weeds, could be used successfully in more potent, targeted doses.

Some chemical firms are considering reviving experimental herbicides once considered too costly or complex.

“Because we’re now giving the grower an order of magnitude reduction in the amount of herbicides they’re using, all of a sudden these more expensive, exotic herbicides are now in play again,” said Willy Pell, Blue River’s director of new technology.

Bayer, which is soon to be the world’s biggest seeds and pesticides producer, has teamed up with Bosch for a “smart spraying” research project.

They plan to outpace rivals with an on-board arsenal of up to six different herbicides and Bayer hopes the venture will prepare it for a new business model.

Liam Gordon, who heads Bayer’s crop science division, says he is not concerned in terms of damping sales because they don’t define themselves as a volume seller.

“We rather offer a prescription for a weed-free field and we get paid based on the quality of the outcome.”