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Robots against weeds

Testing the ecoRobotix robot in Switzerland (Denis Balibouse/Reuters/Newscom)


Robots against weeds

Weed-killing bots may transform herbicide practices

Autonomous farming robots that target weeds directly are poised to disrupt the current practice of mass spraying of herbicides.

Swiss company ecoRobotix is one of several newcomers in the emerging field of digital agriculture. Its solar-powered robot, which looks something like a pingpong table on wheels, can identify and spray weeds for 12 hours straight without an operator. Its developers believe it will use 20 times less herbicide than traditional methods that involve spraying entire fields.

Another company, Silicon Valley startup Blue River, recently acquired by U.S. agricultural equipment maker John Deere, has also developed a weed-killing machine: It uses cameras and artificial intelligence to distinguish weeds from crops.

Industry analysts believe plant-specific precision spraying will only grow in importance.

“If you can reduce herbicides by the factor of 10 it becomes very compelling for the farmer in terms of productivity,” Richard Lightbound, the European CEO of automation consultancy group ROBO Global, told the Reuters news service. “It’s also eco-friendly and that’s clearly going to be very popular, if not compulsory, at some stage.”

The new technique could disrupt the $26-billion-per-year herbicide business, which, according to Reuters, involves spraying nonselective weed killers such as Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) on large fields sown with genetically modified crops resistant to herbicides. Decades of widespread use of glyphosate has given rise to resistant strains of weeds that are invading U.S. farms.

Huge agrochemical companies such as Bayer—which acquired Monsanto in June—are embracing the “smart spraying” approach and developing their own targeted spraying technology using more selective herbicides rather than broad-spectrum weed killers.

“There won’t be a new glyphosate,” said Liam Condon, head of Bayer’s crop science division, noting that precision spraying could be the final blow for nonselective herbicides. “That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime product.”



Windowless flight

Gazing out of an airplane window may become a thing of the past for commercial airline passengers. Instead, they might sit next to a high-definition “virtual window”—a video image from outside the plane, recorded by fiber optic cameras. Emirates airline recently unveiled a new windowless first-class cabin on its fleet of Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.

Emirates President Sir Tim Clark told the BBC that the airline’s ultimate goal is to eliminate windows entirely, making aircraft lighter, faster, and more fuel efficient.

Clark claims that removing windows would help cut the weight of the plane by up to 50 percent, “simply because in terms of build and structure and load [they] are quite a problem and you have to reinforce a fuselage to be able to take them.”

Aviation safety experts agree that there are no real safety concerns with virtual windows as long as the flight crew can see outside the aircraft during an emergency. A compromise might be having windows at critical points along the fuselage.

“The idea that we have to look out and have the window shades raised during takeoffs and landings is in the event of an emergency,” Douglas Drury, an aviation expert from the University of South Australia told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “The regulator may … say you can do whatever you want from row one to 25 but on the emergency exits you have to have a window there.” —M.C.


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  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Sat, 07/07/2018 12:11 pm

    Weed killing robots is a terrific use of technology.  Sure beats humans with hoes or planes spraying Roundup on everything.  Thanks for the story.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Mon, 07/16/2018 05:05 am

    A better weed killing robot would be one that pulls weeds, rather than spraying poison on them, but perhaps the problem with that approach is that pulling the weeds will harm the good plants.  Matt 13:29.

  • Fuzzyface
    Posted: Mon, 07/16/2018 09:19 am

    For what I've seen the robots have a lot of work to do before they will be acceptable on crops.  The best I've seen actually use fertilizer to thin produce crops to the right spacing. (extra seeds are planted because you never get 100% germ - especially in field conditions.)  These robotic machines are just in trial stages now (field trials by farmers who have purchased them) and the window of conditions where they will work consistantly is very small.

    There is a lot of interest in these because of the rising cost of labor.  Realistically these will probably become a tool in conjunction with herbicides and cultivation - maybe reducing herbicide use but not replacing it.  Farmers will probably need to use herbicides to reduce the weeds to managable numbers and use the robots to reduce hand labor.

  • Nat Manzanita
    Posted: Mon, 07/16/2018 11:15 pm

    Virtual windows on airplanes may be an inevitable development because of the obvious engineering and safety advantages, but I still think it's sad. One more step away from reality -- and that in a context that currently offers some of the most amazing views non-astronauts will ever see.