Herbicides are chemicals specifically used in farming for killing weeds whereas they are also known as hazardous for human health as well as the environment. The number of types of herbicides, the amount of them, and their environmental impact are rising every day. Nevertheless, what if it has already changed?
What if there is a system able to facilitate farmers’ work, making it less time-consuming and less costly? What if this technology can reduce the effect of herbicides on human health and the environment? What if farmers can control the amount and type of chemicals with their smartphones? Nowadays, there are no ‘ifs’ and this smart spraying technology exists.
What is smart spraying technology?
A smart spraying technology is a cutting-edge substitution to a conventional sprayer that automatically disperses chemicals on the crops following a set of regulations ensuring the process is efficient and sustainable.
In 2018 conventional spraying technologies were supplied with high-speed sensors and computing technology bringing pesticides application into the digital age. From the first field experiment, smart spraying technology showed astounding results, which are only improving with technological advances and the rise of connected farming.
Smart spraying in numbers
According to the results of the field experiment, smart spraying technologies:
- reduced airborne spray drift by up to 87%;
- reduced spray loss on the ground by up to 93%;
- reduced pesticide use by more than 50%;
- showed the same level of pest control as a conventional sprayer.
Having considered this promising data, contemporary farmers can hardly imagine their processes organized without the use of smart spraying technology because of the numerous benefits it offers.
How does smart spraying technology work?
In short, smart spraying technology uses multiple sensors and detectors to identify the presence or absence of weeds. Only when the target is present in the spray zone, they activate smart spray nozzles. However, there is much more than this.
The nozzle is the part of a system through which a liquid solution is delivered. Improving the nozzle influences the precision of spraying and thus the efficacy of smart spraying technology. The marginal properties of modern nozzles include:
- better patterns to spray evenly;
- accurate pressure monitoring;
- forward speed measurement;
- auto-switching of sections and nozzles depending on the area;
- sprayer control systems to ease setting and control output.
Needless to say that as time passes the number of various nozzle types increases. Therefore, nowadays there is a possibility to opt for angled, air-induction, etc. nozzles to reach maximum precision and minimum loss.
Smart spraying components
As a smart spraying approach strives to apply chemicals only where they are needed, there are several components involved, i.e. a sensing system, a response function, and spraying technology.
A sensing system measures differences in the crop, soil, or weed which form the basis for variable application or spot treatment. A response function determines what is to be done, i.e. whether the herbicides are to be spread or there is some treatment to be applied in the area. Spraying technology responds to the demands for a variable rate or spot spraying.
Based on the information above, the following application types may be applied:
- variable rate application – involves changing the rate of the product being applied;
- patch spraying – involves spraying only on the specific areas of the fields, frequently where the weeds are or the disease is focused in;
- spot spraying – targets the smallest possible area, i.e. a single weed.
Needless to say that all the parts of smart spraying technology are constantly improving. Thus, the opportunities and controls given to a user vary depending on the technology opted for and the version chosen.
Which challenges does spraying technology for precise herbicide application solve?
Whereas conventional spraying technologies are still used, the advantages of smart spraying technology solve many more issues than any conventional one. Moreover, the increase in population will eventually require much more food to be grown, therefore much more labor to be done. Although the innovations are vital for these purposes, there are many more than that.
Decrease of environmental risks
Herbicides are necessary for ensuring the production of food, but their overuse may seriously affect the environment. Smart spraying technology is supposed to decrease herbicide drift, which therefore decreases environmental risks. According to statistics, the amount of herbicides used by smart sprayers is 70% lower compared to the amount applied by a conventional one.
It is only possible because smart spraying technology identifies exact areas or exact weed on which the solution must be applied. Therefore, farmers can save on production costs as the amount of herbicide utilized is strictly controlled.
Leveling the risks for human health
Moreover, not only does the over-application of herbicides contribute to environmental risks, but it also causes serious issues for human health. Therefore, off-target spray deposition is a key issue to be solved, which also means dealing with the ensuing consequences.
Facilitating farmers’ labor
Other challenges faced by farmers include the weather conditions, i.e. wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, and temperature. Spraying technology aims at precision in any sort of weather conditions conceivable to reach a set target with a minimum threat to the environment and human health.
Additionally, the issue, which is commonly overlooked, is the crop foliage and its density. Depending on these factors, the uniformity of herbicide application is much less useful. Consequently, smart spraying technology with its smart sensors can facilitate the task with zero waste and minimum impact on the environment while also saving on the cost. Similarly, the time dedicated to checking all the parameters mentioned is much lower. Hence, the use of smart spraying technology is a lot less time-consuming.
Finally, yet importantly, conventional spraying technology is extremely laborious whereas smart spraying technology is much more convenient to utilize as a result of the properties mentioned above. Furthermore, the features of each smart spraying technology can be adapted to the type of field a farmer works with, so the performance of the technology increases even more dramatically.
Easy to use
The control over a smart sprayer is always at hand – in your mobile, laptop, or tablet. Anybody can get the hang of the controls as easily as it is to get into the use of the GPS. With the push of the button, there is a possibility to adapt all the parameters as well as introduce some changes into it.
What technologies (Tech Stack) are required to build a smart spraying solution?
To understand which technologies are to be used while developing a smart spraying solution, there is a real necessity to understand the algorithms inside. It is also vital to keep in mind the targets that are to be met, i.e. achieve precise spraying and develop an application (weed) map. It should be used in real-time and process information such as image acquisition, object detection, and communication.
6 commonly used technologies in smart spraying software
1. Image acquisition
The software requires frames for cameras, which are to send the images simultaneously. Then, they are to be merged into a single image with a 1024 x 256 pixels resolution to achieve real-time processing speed. The overall processing speed is determined by the network utilized and the capabilities of GPU. At this point choosing a proper wireless connection is crucial for such software applications.
2. Target detection
For the target/object detection, a detection network is to be utilized. The network is to be trained for each experiment situation using images of target and non-targets.
3. Neural network and deep learning
Neural networks are to be used to train and detect objects. The procedures in this stage may vary, but normally include the following steps:
- scanning of the image for the features using different filters;
- multiplication of the matrix generated and the matrix in the input;
- creation of the feature maps using the downsampling;
- a fully connected layer is revealed at the end.
This, or similar, the cycle continues over and over again with every image in the training set.
4. Weed and nozzle position and triggering
The computation and prototyping platform units interconnect with one another. They use the weed relative coordinates to calculate the nozzle position and the height.
5. Weed position registration for mapping
After every frame detection on the computation unit, GPS data are to be recorded by the RTK GPS. Based on the data received before, an absolute position for every target is calculated and saved on a text file for future reading and utilization on creating a target weeds absolute position map. If no GPS device is connected to the system, the position is not to be saved.
6. Valve control system
The data coming from the computation unit and the GPS data are used to calculate the vehicle speed as well as the spraying time. Based on this information, the signals are to be sent to trigger the valve.
According to the described algorithm, the best tech stack is chosen to apply in the smart spraying technology specifically used for the necessary purpose.
What are the benefits of smart sprayer use?
The cases in which the precise herbicide application takes place are multiple, however, the main reasons are to reduce the cost, preserve biodiversity and get more crops, enhance plants growth and detect disease focus.
Reducing the cost
As it has already been mentioned above, the use of smart spraying technology reduces the over-application of herbs which benefits the ecosystem and human health. On the other side, the reduction of herbicide drifts also influences the cost of the herbicide, thus offering an additional benefit.
In cases of herbicide application via conventional spraying technology, herbicides may not only kill the weeds but also the plants are grown by a farmer damaging the biodiversity at the same time. Applying herbicides in the exact place for exact weeds means preserving the neighboring plants.
Due to the use of smart spraying technology, plant diseases may be identified and cured simultaneously. With the analysis of the images from the cameras, the decision is easy to make. The farmer then has to decide whether to apply a solution on the spot, patch, or the whole area altogether. Such accuracy preserves the amount of crop and, indeed, saves on the costs.
Looking back on the data mentioned, the conclusion is that smart spraying technology is here to stay. The stats show astounding and promising results which never stop improving. So does not stop the advance of smart spraying technology. It is to be the basic need tool for a farmer in a short-term perspective (if it has not become it yet). It guarantees improvements in the environment and health, facilitates farmers’ work, and gives opportunities to grow more with fewer losses.