Automation is coming to nearly every imaginable industry, and agriculture is not immune. The latest proof? A new research project is trying to prove that robots could destroy weeds better than a farmer driving a sprayer full of herbicide.
British-based AHDB Horticulture (an organization devoted to various R&D initiatives for British growers) is partially funding a new project called 'eyeSpot,' which it says could revolutionize weed control. Researchers at the University of Reading, Knight Farm Machinery and Precision Farming Robotics have teamed together to create an automated spot herbicide ejector.
Using an imaging system to distinguish weeds from crops, and based on weed size, it will administer an appropriate dosage of herbicide directly on them. Ideally, no herbicide will hit the crop or even the soil - it is hyper-targeted to each individual weed, according to the researchers. They estimate the system could reduce up to 95% of herbicide inputs.
A proof-of-concept trial was conducted on savoy cabbages in the summer of 2016. Researchers manually applied drops of herbicide as they continue to work on an automated prototype, which should be ready for preliminary field trials by 2018. The proof-of-concept trials showed they could achieve 92% weed control, 94% less herbicide applied and better yields than using a conventionally applied pre-emergence herbicide.
"This is a pioneering project, as we are exploring a combined engineering and chemical solution to weed control in field vegetables," according to researcher Alistair Murdoch with the University of Reading. "By accurately targeting leaf-specific droplet applications, it is the ultimate in precision agriculture."
Murdoch calls the approach a "paradigm shift" in weed control because it is achieved as much through engineering as it is through chemistry.