Coming soon? A death ray for weeds

A partnership between crown research institute AgResearch, the Universities of Auckland and Michigan and NZ-based technology firm Redfern Solutions has been awarded a grant of almost $1 million

A partnership between crown research institute AgResearch, the Universities of Auckland and Michigan and NZ-based technology firm Redfern Solutions has been awarded a grant of almost $1 million from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund to look into how weeds can be identifed from drone mounted cameras and then killed using drone mounted lasers.

AgResearch says its recent study estimates the known costs of weeds to New Zealand agriculture to be at least $1.7b annually year, but the true cost is likely to be much higher.

Programme leader Dr Kioumars Ghamkhar said the aim was to use cameras and software technology to identify the weeds based on their unique chemical signatures and how they reflect light, and then locate them precisely using GPS.

“From there, we think smart spraying (rather than systemic and non-targeted use of chemicals), or the right kind of laser mounted on the drone could hone in and damage the weed,” he said.

He said the identification of different plants by chemical signature had already been shown to be workable in other AgResearch projects, and the challenge now was to accurately identify weeds so use of the drone-mounted laser could be effective, or that if not targeted spraying from equipment mounted on the drone.

 “We know there are lasers now available that could be suitable, and that they are extremely accurate, so if lasers are used, it would also avoid damaging the useful plants around the weed.”

He added: “We want to develop something that could be an efficient option for users such as farmers, regional councils and the Department of Conservation.

“The effectiveness of lasers against plants has been tested overseas before but that was in the lab, and we’ll be taking it out in the field to test and see if it works as we have planned.

“We’ll be starting with testing of different types of laser with plants at three different stages of growth in the lab, and from there we will select the best form of laser to see its impacts on the weeds out on a farm.”

Similar initiatives are already underway elsewhere. Earlier this year Japanese tech giant Hitachi was reported to be promising that drones would be able to fly for several hours, identifying and spot spraying woody weeds, and monitoring pasture biomass on pastoral properties on a daily basis.

Earlier this month Netherlands based crop spraying equipment maker, Agrifac announced plans to incorporate weed recognition technology developed by French startup Bilberry and others into crop sprayers sold in Australia, allowing farmers to determine in real time where they need to spray.

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