Emerging sprayer technologies

Drone and intelligent sprayers improve accuracy, efficiency and reduce costs

The Robocrop Spot Sprayer can distinguish clumps of weeds in a minimum target area of 40 millimetres.

Self-propelled (high clearance) sprayers with low-drift nozzles might be the norm on farms across North America but emerging technologies are expected to change how crop protection products are applied.

“Our farms are growing, our use of crop protection agents is growing and we have a labour shortage,” says Tom Wolf, a sprayer expert and scientist with Saskatoon-based Agrimetrix Research and Training. “Farm equipment has to be more productive.”

Drone and intelligent sprayers — tools that improve accuracy and efficiency — are the latest developments in sprayer technologies.

Intelligent Sprayers

A 2018 collaboration between researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture and Ohio State University led to the development of the first intelligent sprayer. The machine uses sensors to detect plants around the sprayer and applies the optimum level of spray based on a computer algorithm. In field trials, it reduced airborne spray drift, spray loss and pesticide use, resulting in average annual savings of US$230 per acre.

Although intelligent sprayers are relatively new to the market, the technology continues to evolve. The second-generation models use video cameras and artificial intelligence to identify different species of plants, determining which ones are weeds that need to be sprayed.

Bosch claims that its intelligent sprayer only needs 300 milliseconds to recognize a weed and spray it. The Robocrop Spot Sprayer, developed by Zürn Garford in the United Kingdom, can distinguish clumps of weeds in a minimum target area as small as 40 millimetres.

John Deere-owned Blue River Technology created See and Spray technology, which uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between a weed and the crop. The machine moves across fields applying precision shots of herbicides to undesirable plants, protecting crops. The manufacturer claims herbicide costs were reduced 90 per cent when producers traded broadcast sprayers for the intelligent sprayer. It’s currently available on a limited basis for cotton crops in the United States.

Wolf believes it will take time before intelligent sprayers are the norm on farms. “The proof of concept has happened [but] most of the technology has yet to be field-proven. The challenge will be making it so reliable that it could replace a broadcast herbicide,” he explains.

Drone Sprayers

Farmers use drones for tasks ranging from field mapping, soil assessment, and crop health and harvest planning to documenting crop losses. The unmanned aerial vehicles are also being tested as high-tech spraying tools.

Global manufacturers have developed effective drone sprayers that scan the ground and apply crop protection as needed. Drones offer significant advantages, including providing access to steep terrain, and can spray fields up to five times faster than conventional agricultural sprayers, according to some industry estimates. Trading backpack sprayers for drones also helps protect workers from pesticide exposures.

The Yamaha FAZER and RMAX drones were engineered for spray applications and approved for use in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Thailand and the United States. Volocopter teamed up with John Deere to create an aerial crop duster. The VoloDrone is equipped with a sprayer tank that accommodates up to 440 pounds of herbicides and can remain airborne for up to 30 minutes.

In Canada, it remains illegal to use drones to apply pesticides but regulations haven’t stopped companies from developing the technology. Ontario-based Forward Robotics makes a drone with a pull-behind sprayer with a fixed-wing design to minimize drift to make it more apt to fit with conventional aircraft spray regulations.

Wolf expects that Canadian regulations for drone sprayers might change as the technology evolves but it’ll take time before the autonomous machines are the go-to technology on the majority of farms. Widespread adoption requires more mature technology, qualified operators and more competitive pricing. Drone sprayers are quite small, which means more frequent refills, and spray drift is a significant concern.

Cost might also be a barrier that limits widespread adoption of both intelligent and drone sprayer technologies.

“Every agricultural technology has a cost factor associated with it and the return on investment has to be high for it to be justified,” Wolf says. “Some of the early adopters have seen [sprayer technologies] pay for itself in a few years, which is very unusual for a new technology.”

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