Robotic Weed Killer Nears Farmland

What if an army of herbicide snipers in a sprayer shot weeds but never hit crops? The same technology enabling facial recognition on Facebook is ready for plant recognition to spray weeds on a dime, all in one pass. Simply, the tractor never stops rolling.

Blue River Technology’s See & Spray carries major implications for unprecedented selectivity in weed control. A robotic pigweed killer might provide a 90% reduction in chemical use, maintenance of tractor speed at 6 mph, and the polar opposite of broadcast spraying. The non-stop motion of recognition and herbicide application is akin to a massive inkjet printer rolling across farmland. 

The pull-behind unit is a symphony of computer, cameras, sensors, tanks and nozzles capable of spraying one type of plant and avoiding another. The computer is programmed to detect a given crop, and any plant that doesn’t match the designated crop gets hit with a spot-on stream of herbicide.

Each of the eight rows has two cameras. Positioned 2' behind the first camera are 14 to 19 nozzles followed by the second camera. The first camera sends a continuous flow of images to a computer that makes dozens to hundreds of evaluations per second. The nozzles fire off at individual weeds in staccato fashion. The second camera records performance to allow the computer to make on-the-fly adjustments. The smart sprayer relies on Nvidia chip sets typically used in the gaming and graphics industries.

“Cameras see plants, a computer processes the images and the spray nozzles respond, all in real time,” says Mac Keely, vice president of commercial operations for Blue River.

How fast is the smart sprayer? Jorge Heraud, CEO and co-founder of Blue River, says testing units are running at 4 mph, but his market goal is 6 mph. Blue River has an 8-row test implement for cotton but is also working on a 12-row version for cotton and a 24-row version for soybeans.

The nozzles are extremely accurate, Heraud says, capable of hitting a 1"x1" target. He wants individual nozzles to nail a spot the size of a postage stamp. 

“Precision can open the door for nonselective burndown chemicals, and we’re working with the EPA for approval of additional herbicides,” he notes.

“The real magic happens when a weed and crop are overlapping. This is a precise spraying mechanism no matter the distance between weed and crop,” Keely says.

Drift reduction is another notable benefit of the smart sprayer, Heraud notes. The custom nozzles emit big droplets from 2' above the soil, and the hood design helps keep the product on target. “We spray a tenth of a normal herbicide application,” he adds. 

In 2017, the See & Spray implement will tackle weeds at several locations in the Cotton Belt. Blue River hopes to have units commercially available later this year. The smart sprayer is adjustable to bedded or flat ground.

Price point? The See & Spray implement will cost in the range of high-end sprayers, Heraud says.

With $5 billion annually spent on herbicides in the U.S. ($25 billion globally), according to Heraud, the appeal of smart herbicide applications is tantalizing. “Farmers don’t want to keep going with repeated passes, tremendous herbicide bills and diminishing chemical efficacy,” he says. 

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