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This content is taken from the EIT Food, University of Cambridge & European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)'s online course, Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsWeeds can be very harmful to crops, competing with them for water, sunlight and nutrients and inhibiting their growth and therefore yield. Many farmers deal with weeds by spraying herbicides – chemicals that kill unwanted plants – across the entire crop. Not only is this expensive and inefficient, increasing reliance on chemicals means more and more weeds are becoming herbicide-resistant. One such example is pigweed, a common weed in North America which thrives in hot weather, grows and reproduces quickly, and competes aggressively against warm season crops such as corn.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 secondsA company called Blue River Technology has developed a solution to this problem: precision weed control. Their See & Spray machine uses cameras, computers and artificial intelligence to see and identify every plant in the field. Farmers can then choose specific plants to spray, dramatically reducing the amount of herbicides used. The machine can be adjusted to different conditions in different fields. For example, it can be instructed to create different-sized ‘safe zones’ around protected plants when spraying herbicides. Farmers can decide how aggressive they want the machine to be when targeting weeds. The system can even inform farmers of how many weeds it sees in the field and what kinds of weeds they are, so farmers can tailor their herbicide programs.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 secondsThe machine uses deep learning algorithms similar to facial recognition. By showing the machine thousands of examples of pigweed, it can become an expert in identifying pigweed. This technology means a single person on a tractor can spray various chemicals across the entire field, allowing farmers to make huge cost savings. While this cutting-edge technology is currently only being used on cotton and lettuce crops, who knows where it could go in the future?

Case study: precision weed control

One of the biggest challenges farmers face is weeds, which inhibit crop growth by competing with crops for resources such as water and light, decreasing yield.

In this case study you’ll see an example of a new technology that’s already being used in fields to combat weeds and reduce herbicide use.

Traditional spraying machines spray herbicides across the entire field, but over-reliance on chemicals causes weeds to become tolerant. The See & Spray machine allows farmers to reduce their herbicide use, and is currently being used on cotton and lettuce fields. It uses machine learning to identify weeds and targets them with robotic nozzles as the machine passes over them. This means herbicide is only applied to weeds, not the crops.

Find out more about how the See & Spray machine works in this video.

To discuss

In the comments section, let us know your thoughts on this new technology. For example:

  • What are the strengths and limitations of the See & Spray?
  • How does it compare to other methods of weed control you know about?
  • Can you suggest any ways the machine could be improved?
  • The machine still uses herbicides, although a greatly reduced amount. To what extent do you see this as a limitation?

We would like to thank John Deere for providing the video materials for this step.

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This video is from the free online course:

Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology

EIT Food