Most agree that cutting herbicide use would be a good thing, and thanks to a nifty little weedkilling drone from Denmark, that might now be within our grasp.
The drones have been designed as part of the ASETA project that is being fronted by Anders La Cour-Harbo of Aalborg University in Denmark.
The idea here is that remotely controlled drones will be able to hover above crop fields and, using their sensory equipment, deliver a targeted burst of herbicide in weed affected areas.
The current set-up sees the small drones, like remote controlled helicopters, fitted with a camera that can pick up very particular parts of the light spectrum that betray the differences in crops and weeds because of how much light they absorb.
This information is then relayed to a computer that in turn updates flight maps of the fields. This enables the system to be able to calculate the areas in need of closer examination and, possibly, spraying.
This kind of technology isn’t actually unique. We previously brought you news of the hamster ball-inspired farming drone, and there are other robot helpers in the works, such as one being developed by an Indiana-based start-up that is capable of dispatching dandelions with 98% accuracy.
The Aalborg University team plans to push their drone as far as it can go however and improve on it by adding more sensors to the drone that will be able to assess many more farming related issues such as soil nutrition, growth rates and more.
They also aim to simplify the current set-up to either make the drones autonomous or at least more user-friendly.
This technology, and in particular its targeted method of delivering herbicide, could be important for farming for several reasons.
If the makers can deliver this technology at a relatively low cost, it could, for instance, be a cost-effective solution for tending our crops that improves on farming’s still labor intensive model.
Should the University of Denmark team be able to add features like soil monitoring, this could also allow for further precision in farming techniques that again could cut costs and be a boon for our struggling agricultural sectors.
But it is in herbicide — and pesticide — use where the real gains stand to be made.
Given that currently the primary method of weed control is to blanket entire fields with herbicide, the drones would serve to dramatically cut herbicide use and therein could save money and, more importantly, reduce the negative effects of herbicides.
While herbicides have widely different toxicity levels, they can impact bird population numbers due in part to toxicity, but also because they cause environmental changes — for instance, if the birds subsist on seeds released by “weeds” that have now been eradicated from certain areas, or if they migrate to certain areas specifically because of the cover the so-called weeds provide and are now prevented from doing so because the areas have been cleared.
There are of course associated health risks for humans too, including some links to suggest certain herbicides may contribute to serious conditions like cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Therefore cutting herbicide use while ensuring targeted control measures can still be deployed really could mean us having our cake — or should that be corn? — and eating it too.