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Robotic Pigweed Killer Nears Farmland

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

Blue River Technology’s new smart sprayer carries major implications for unprecedented selectivity in weed control. A robotic pigweed killer may 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.

Across the 8-row implement, each row contains two cameras. Positioned 2’ behind the first camera, each row holds 14 to 19 nozzles, followed by the second camera. The first camera sends a continuous flow of images to a central computer that makes dozens to hundreds of evaluations per second. The nozzles fire off at individual weeds in staccato fashion. The second camera on each row is positioned at the rear, and records performance to allow the computer to make on-the-fly adjustments. The smart sprayer relies on powerful 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 cofounder of Blue River, says testing units are currently 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 12-row version for cotton and a 24-row version for soybeans.

Heraud emphasizes the extreme accuracy of the smart sprayer and says the nozzles are capable of hitting a 1” by 1” target. Boiled down, he wants individual nozzles to nail a spot the size of a postage stamp, all done on the fly. “Precision can open the door for nonselective burndown chemicals, and we’re working with the EPA for approval of additional herbicides. We spray a tenth of a normal herbicide application,” 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.

The nozzles fire from 2’ above the soil line and Heraud says drift reduction is another major benefit of the smart sprayer: “The opportunities for drift reduction are huge. We’re using a tenth of chemicals, combined with low height and a hood effect. In addition, our custom nozzles will emit huge droplets.”

During the 2017 crop season, Blue River’s See & Spray implement will tackle weeds at several locations across the Cotton Belt. The smart sprayer is adjustable to bedded ground or flats, and Blue River hopes to have units commercially available in late 2017.

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

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. “The time is now for smart herbicide application.”

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