Editor's Note: There is a video at the end of this story that shows the new sprayer in action.
A key area of technology development has been the rise of lower cost sensors tied to equipment for enhanced performance. New vision-based systems for more precise work are one area of focus for many, and a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup is mating visual sensors to smarter computers to create a new kind of sprayer.
Called the See and Spray, the hooded machine can see weeds, and spray only weeds, in a standing crop. Ben Chostner explained that the idea was to focus on the investment return of an individual plant. "The individual plant is an appropriate management zone," he noted. "For corn yield increases, there's not an end in sight."
He explained that machine learning - which is just as it sounds, a system where the computer on a machine learns from experience - is being deployed in agriculture. The idea, Chostner explained, was to have a machine that could solve problems as it worked through the field using onboard processing. The first iteration of that idea is this new weed-targeting sprayer.
For its early work, the company turned to nearby lettuce fields, which produce most of the lettuce consumed in the country. "We put our machine through proof of concept testing and placed herbicides with quarter-inch accuracy," Chostner said. "We tested the machine on tens of thousands of acres in the area." He noted that through that work there was a one in 10 chance that someone eating a salad had plants that had been sprayed with the new tool.
At work the See and Spray system knows the weeds from the crop and will apply a very precise spray to weeds. The hooded design takes wind out of the equation, and potentially drift. It also provides a more consistent light source for those onboard visual sensors to see weeds.
In high cotton
Beyond lettuce, Blue River carted the sprayer to cotton country, where the machine learned how to tackle weeds there too. The spray unit itself is a bank of spray nozzles designed to paint each weed thoroughly with herbicide.
"We had to rethink the entire spray system, the tanks, pumps and how to mix herbicide," Chostner explained. "We have proprietary custom solutions here and we're getting the result we want."
The See and Spray currently moves slower than your standard spray unit, running at about 2 mph, but as it sprays, Chostner explained that the unit was using just 5 to 6% of the normal herbicide application per acre and getting the same control you would see with a conventional application. "The unit sees the weed and shoots the weed," he said. "Growers see that you save herbicide, and can introduce more modes of action to handle herbicide resistant weeds."
With such precise spraying, the farmer would have more options for herbicide choices with the potential to use products such as paraquat in-season since you're really only spraying the weed. While the machine is still in development, Chostner sees it working in a range of crops including soybeans, peanuts and corn. "See and Spray is a flexible tool," he says.
Check out the video below to learn more about how the system works. It's a new video that Blue River has just released.