An automated spray system that shoots a targeted droplet on to a crop with pinpoint accuracy aims to cuts use of chemicals in agriculture by more than 99 percent. Matthew Stock reports.
Traditional pesticides have a bad reputation. Some of them like neonicotinoids have been linked to widespread reduction in honey bee numbers. But this device from developers Cambridge Consultants could help dramatically cut chemical use in farming. It's a spray system that shoots a targeted droplet with supreme accuracy. Using advanced machine vision algorithms, it can differentiate between healthy and diseased crops, and apply a droplet only to those that need it. SOUNDBITE (English) NIALL (PRON. NEIL) MOTTRAM, HEAD OF PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT AT CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, SAYING: "This targeted dispense technology behind me has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides that we apply to crops today; potentially by up to 99 percent. It does this by selectively targeting only weeds and infestations in a whole field, so that healthy crop and soil doesn't have pesticide applied to it. Through that we can massively reduce both cost and environmental impact." For this demonstration model, the system shoots a droplet on to the diseased orange leaves, but ignores the healthy green ones. The system uses readily-available hardware, including a Playstation camera and dispensing technology from ink-jet printers. But it's their complex programming that gives it the precision to hit an object while moving. SOUNDBITE (English) NIALL (PRON. NEIL) MOTTRAM, HEAD OF PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT AT CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, SAYING: "Being able to hit a moving target is challenging. And hitting a moving target that varies in appearance is even more so. So being able to differentiate from colour and shape, and then being able to calculate how quickly you're moving and therefore at what point you should dispense so that you hit your target; that requires some pretty sophisticated algorithms." The droplet travels at five metres per second, and takes just one tenth of a second to hit the target. With some current chemicals set to be outlawed and replaced with more costly biological pesticides, the team says this system could help farmers keep costs down. Eventually, they say a larger version would be mounted onto the side of a farm vehicle, with multiple nozzles shooting targeted droplets onto crops.