“Smart” Sprayer Shows Promise In 2018 Tests – Less Herbicide, Less Movement

A smart, in-crop sprayer tested in the U.S. this season could significantly reduce herbicide costs for farmers and potentially minimize off-target movement of dicamba and other herbicides.

The sprayer uses image recognition software and machine learning techniques to see weeds growing in the crop and delivers a precise shot of herbicide to the weed. Blue River Technology’s See and Spray machine was tested in cotton and soybeans in 2018.

Blue River Technology is owned by Deere and Company.

As the smart sprayer moves through the field, it continuously captures images of the ground and sends them to a computer. When green vegetation is detected, the computer analyzes it and makes a decision.

If it’s a bad guy, the sprayer turns on an array of straight stream nozzles that target the weed and not the crop.

The smart sprays can significantly reduce herbicide use, depending on weed density, and it could allow for more modes of action to be used in-crop, according to University of Arkansas weed scientist Jason Norsworthy, who tested the sprayer.

Arkansas trials in 2018 on cotton showed a 95% reduction in herbicide compared with a broadcast application. The smart sprayer operated at 6 to 8 miles per hour.

Reducing Dicamba Movement – A Bonus

Research on the smart sprayer also indicated a 10-fold reduction in off-target movement of dicamba versus a broadcast application, Norsworthy adds.

“The research has shown that the more you spray, the more off-target movement you have,” Norsworthy explains. “One way you can minimize atmospheric loading of dicamba is through a technology like this where you’re spraying a minimal portion of the field.”

The smart technology loses its advantages for drift reduction and herbicide savings as weed density and potential spray volume increase, Norsworthy adds.

“This points to the value of continuing to put residual herbicides down,” he says. “We have pigweed populations in Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee, where you would be spraying 90% of the area with the See and Spray machine if you didn’t include a residual herbicide in the program.”

Ultimately, you want to control everything that has emerged with the See and Spray machine and at the same time apply a residual herbicide to minimize weed emergence, Norsworthy emphasizes.

“The key is that the recognition software has to be able to accurately pick up extremely small weeds at reasonable speeds.”

So far, it’s been doing a good job, according to Norsworthy. “We were successful in spraying 90% of pigweed that was in the test field, and I don’t think we sprayed any of the cotton,” he reports. “I think it has a great fit in soybeans, too, and early on in corn.”

The Education Continues – With Results

The technology continues to increase reliability over time.

“When we first saw the technology back in 2017, it was spraying more cotton than weeds,” Norsworthy says. “But they’ve made a lot of progress. It did a very good job of differentiating cotton from weeds this year.”

Norsworthy says the smart sprayer is one piece to the puzzle for addressing dicamba drift. “As we integrate these pieces together, we begin to have a system that may allow dicamba technology to be used with a lot less risk than what is associated with it today.”

The sprayer Norsworthy tested was also equipped with hoods, “so you not only have a reduction in off-target movement by minimizing the amount of herbicide applied, but you’re also further reducing off-target movement with the hoods,” Norsworthy said.

Other research indicates more than a three-fold reduction in off-target in the form of physical drift of dicamba with hoods versus an open boom, Norsworthy says. “If farmers are truly serious about minimizing physical drift, hoods are an option.”

More Treatment Options With Less Herbicide

According to William Patzoldt, senior agronomist with Blue River Technology, research and development goals for the company’s See and Spray machine include expanding the use of cost-effective mixtures to bear against weeds and herbicide resistance.

“For example, a grower might not be able to afford applying 2,4-D, glufosinate and glyphosate together in a mixture. But if you’re spraying just a portion of the field, it makes economic sense to put that combination together,” Patzoldt says.

Patzoldt notes that the company is excited about the possibility that See and Spray technology could potentially reduce off-target movement.

“If we can prove that there is better stewardship with the See and Spray, that will only promote the use of dicamba and maintain that technology for future use,” he continues. “Part of the reason why we wanted to work with Jason Norsworthy was to collect some data so we could support those claims.”

See and Spray machine can be “flipped” to spray fungicide or fertilizer on the crop, according to Blue River Technology. In situations where weeds are entangled in the crop, the operator can also adjust the aggressiveness of the spray to accept some damage to the crop to improve weed control.

The machine could also be taught to identify different types of weeds to help the producer tailor an on-the-go weed control program to fit the weeds present.

The technology is being tested in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and Iowa. The current focus is primarily in cotton and soybean production, with the eventual goal of expanding to other crops.