Renewable Farming

Weed-recognition sprayer offers possible 90% reduction in herbicide use

A computer-controlled sprayer system acquired by John Deere in early 2018 uses multiple precision nozzles, triggered by computer-driven optics to discern weeds from crops. The technology could dramatically cut dependence on GMO seeds and their captive herbicides.

And that’s just the first disruption.

February 1, 2019 — Blue River’s “See and Spray” system looks like the robotic weed control implement that’s the closest to large-scale manufacturing and field use. 

What we’re hoping for: The precision looks accurate enough that farmers might be able to avoid glyphosate and other residue-leaving chemicals which have led to weed resistance. Instead, they might possibly spray a broad-spectrum burndown herbicide that’s virtually non-toxic, leaves no residues in food, and could even earn a USDA Organic label. In a small way, we’ve been experimenting and encouraging development of that herbicide approach for four years. Last June we reported on several research efforts to develop robotic weed control system.

We encourage you to visit the Blue River Technology website for a full background description of how a Silicon Valley startup convinced John Deere to invest $305 million to acquire its See & Spray system. Much of the early development work was in California’s vegetable fields and Southern cotton. But now, Midwest-based Growmark agronomists anticipate that the concept could be one of the ‘most disruptive’ tools in history to hit Midwest row-crop agriculture. 

Below is a drone’s-eye view of a See & Spray rig at work in a row crop:

Not a very big spray tank, right? It wouldn’t take high spray volumes when you’re spraying individual weeds. If you have a history of mostly clean fields, weeds probably occur on far less than 10% of the field surface. The optics of See & Spray, assisted by uniform visual conditions under the canopy of the sprayer, can detect a palmer amaranth or buttonweed and signal an “inkjet shot” of spray to clear-coat it with a burndown formulation.

Since we’ve been manufacturing WakeUP for years, we naturally envision the perfect companion to See & Spray: Wakeup Summer, which makes water 60% “wetter” and helps spray materials clear-coat even the fuzziest or slickest weed. WakeUP also speeds herbicide ingredients into a weed’s metabolism, right through the leaf cuticle. On top of that, WakeUP’s cleansing power of colloidal micelles keep sprayer systems much freer from herbicide residue buildup in sprayer lines and filters. That would be especially valuable in delicate pinpoint-spray nozzles. 

See & Spray software is based on facial-recognition technology. Developers constantly “train” the program for enhanced accuracy. Nozzles are set so close that they can lay down inches-wide shots of spray to hit tiny emerging weeds or large ones.

What about weeds within the crop row? Those which hide under crop leaves and spurt ahead of the beans, corn or cotton later? Farmers will recalculate their strategies, possibly using narrow strips of precision-controlled preplant sprays, or even applying exact premerge strips with the  planter. 

Willie Vogt, writing in the Western Farmer-Stockman, had high praise in his December feature on the See & Spray system. We’ll insert a scan of his feature below. Agronomic consultant Bob Streit sent us that article, along with his own optimism about ways that See & Spray could dramatically reduce residues of glyphosate and other toxins in our soil and food.