The future of weed control
Young is not advocating the system as yet another “silver bullet,” but as an entirely new approach in cropping systems where multiple weed-fighting strategies are available for use at the same time. “It’s revolutionary because all the tools for controlling weeds are put on a level playing field; none is regarded or relied on more than another,” he says. “And because the tools are interchangeable, this system can be used in conventional, organic, or any other cropping system.”
If it all sounds a bit futuristic, the future isn’t too far off, he adds. Development of advanced spray nozzles and micro-application technologies is well underway, and the engineering literature is already stuffed with robotics and sensing technologies for automated weed control. The big hurdle now is to identify weeds very precisely in the field, especially under rainy or windy conditions when plants are swaying all over the place.
“One of the challenges to really moving this along,” Young says, “is to account for that variability in the field, not only with identification, but getting things on the target plant.”
Fortunately, weed scientists and other biologists understand variability very well, and Young is now trying to encourage more collaboration between them and engineers. Engineers necessarily focus on machinery—how it’s built, how fast it goes, how well it detects a target. Meanwhile, weed scientists understand plants and their responses to different weed- killing treatments, or the “application side of things,” Young says. “The engineers are bringing biology to their work, but in my opinion they could get there faster if they worked with weed scientists.”
And weed scientists? Young says they need to broaden their thinking beyond traditional practices and chemicals, and toward automation—especially given today’s advances in technology.
“If you go back 10, 15 years, no way—this would not be possible,” Young says. “But because we have computers now that go faster, and things like weather proof cameras that can sense things down to the micro-level, we now have the ability. So let’s use it.”
A seminar series on automated weed control will be held at University of Nebraska-Lincoln this winter, with two sessions streamed live, online. Learn more.