Ag Today June 13, 2018

Farm Robots Need to Be Trusted to Tell Crops From Weeds

By Ayanna Alexander, Bloomberg, June 13, 208

Robots will move along fields either spraying herbicides through a pen-like nozzle or pulling weeds as soon as 2019 after their makers perfect programming them to distinguish weeds from crops like tomatoes.

Farmers appear to be warming to the idea, as challenges recruiting field workers are leading them to seek alternatives.

Still, robot manufacturers acknowledge that they have to ensure their creations are discerning and won’t overspray or accidentally destroy crops with herbicides. They also must promote trust among potential customers who may be wary about artificial intelligence after accidents with Tesla’s and Uber’s autonomous self-driving vehicles, according to robot makers.

Robot developers are promoting the machines as better for the environment. Precision sprayers are projected to reduce herbicide usage on fields by 20 percent to 90 percent, with computer sensors telling the robot how much of the chemical is actually needed. But first the developers must ensure the robots can distinguish fruits and vegetables from the weeds around them.

Autonomous Weeders?
David Slaughter, an agricultural engineer and leader of the Smart Farm Initiative at University of California, Davis, said his research group is advancing mechanized robotic agricultural technology.

The UC Davis team is testing an automated cultivator, which is a mechanized tractor programmed to seek weeds around row crops and remove them. The cultivator has faced challenges in distinguishing between weeds and crops though, Slaughter said.

“In crops where the weeds are closely related like tomatoes, getting a smart machine to distinguish between the crop and the weed that are in the same family is difficult,” he said.

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