Smart Farm Equipment to Greatly Reduce Use of Chemicals

30 May, 2018

Nearly every week, we hear news about the latest successes and failures in driverless vehicles. But we hear little about how other industries are developing this same kind of technology.

One industry heavily involved in researching and developing artificial intelligence, or AI, is agriculture. Companies are experimenting with high-tech tools that can help farmers save time and money, while reducing environment-harming chemicals.

One of the companies is ecoRobotix of Switzerland. It created a robot equipped with AI and cameras to identify all plants on a farm. The robot has four wheels to carry it through the fields in search of weeds. Computer-controlled arms then lower and spray the weeds with small amounts of herbicide.

Company officials say the robot can fully operate on its own for up to 12 hours a day while being powered by the sun. It uses the same kind of sensor and positioning technology used to guide driverless vehicles. A farmer can also control the equipment through a smartphone.

The co-founder of ecoRobotix, Aurelien Demaurex, says the farm robot can kill weeds with 20 times less herbicide than traditional methods. This is because the system uses exactly the right amount of chemical in the exact place required to kill the weeds.

Currently, farmers spread weed killers over massive areas to destroy unwanted plants.

This method led to a huge industry of genetically engineered crop products created to resist herbicides. The process of changing the genetic structure of food crops has been debated for some time. Such foods are commonly called GMOs - for genetically modified organisms, or GEs – meaning genetically edited.

Critics of genetically engineered crops believe they can harm people. Large chemical companies have been criticized for supporting genetic crop engineering in order to keep driving herbicide sales.

Aurelien Demaurex says the ecoRobotix system can revolutionize farming by greatly reducing chemical usage, while operating without additional equipment or people. The company is planning to bring its robot to the market by early next year.

Another company developing farm robotics is California-based Blue River Technology. The company has a system called "See & Spray," which it claims was the world's first smart sprayer.

Blue River Technology says its See & Spray system uses machine learning technology to accurately identify and target specific weeds with small amounts of herbicide. (Blue River Technology)
Blue River Technology says its See & Spray system uses machine learning technology to accurately identify and target specific weeds with small amounts of herbicide. (Blue River Technology)

The system – which connects to the back of a tractor – is also equipped with AI to identify and chemically kill only the weeds. It can also spray chemicals on wanted plants to help them grow.

Ben Chostner is the vice president of business development for Blue River Technology. He explains in a company video that See & Spray technology uses the same deep learning methods used in facial recognition.

"The first time we saw a pigweed, the machine didn't know what kind of plant it was. But we taught it - by giving it tens of thousands of examples of that pigweed - and now it's an expert in pigweed."

Chostner adds that the technology gives farmers much more control over the management of their crops. This is because they can get a full picture of exactly what weeds are present to be able to design the best plan for getting rid of them.

The company says its technology can kill the same number of weeds with just 10 percent of the amount of herbicide currently used to spray whole fields.

Texas cotton farmer Clint Bigham says he sees the technology improving his current methods in big ways.

"With the rig, we have other options open to us. We can spray different chemicals that we were not able to spray before. We can take one man and put him on a tractor and we can do the work or 8 to 10 people."

Last year, major American tractor company John Deere & Company bought Blue River for $305 million. In a statement at the time, John Deere said the deal demonstrated a commitment to develop machine-learning technology in future products.

Germany's electronics company Bosch and chemical manufacturer Bayer have also teamed up to research "smart spraying" technology.

But Bayer is also one of the world's largest seeds and pesticides producers. Economic experts say Bayer's deal with Bosch is aimed at preparing the business for major reductions in herbicide sales when new "smart agriculture" solutions are widely used.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

weed n. plant that tends to grow where not wanted and to prevent the growth of more desirable plants usually by taking up space

spray v. to put a stream of small drops of liquid on something

herbicide n. chemical used to destroy plants, especially weeds

tractor n. motor vehicle with large back wheels and thick tires used on farms for pulling heavy loads and machinery

rig n. piece of equipment or machinery used for a particular purpose

option n. the chance or ability to choose something or to choose between two or more things

pesticide n. chemical substance used to kill harmful insects, small animals, wild plants, and other unwanted organisms