Drone sprayers separate the weeds

REGINA — A Saskatchewan company has developed artificially intelligent robots capable of detecting and spraying weeds autonomously.

“There is the brain and the body. The brain is the parts of the camera, the AI that figures out what it’s looking at and can actually differentiate between weed and crop. And not just differentiate, it will also identify what species of weed it is,” said Daniel McCann, founder of Precision.ai.

“The body is just the vehicle for spray delivery and we have different plans for that.”

McCann had two model prototypes on display at Canada’s Farm Progress Show held June 19-21 in Regina — one air and one ground-based drone.

“It goes by itself. You can use an i-pad or something and you can just draw out where your farm is. It will figure out where it’s supposed to drive,” said the Saskatoon-based inventor.

AI is built into the camera system, which enables the robots to differentiate between crop and weeds and then decide what to spray.

With the ground-based drone, which the company calls its rolling drone, only the nozzles directly above the detected weeds are activated as the robot travels across a field.

“If you have canola, it will recognize it as canola, or if you have Canadian thistle it will see it as Canadian thistle. Then, on the back, it will activate just the spray nozzle necessary to just spray the weed and nothing else. So you can cut down dramatically on your spray usage by spraying only the weeds and not the crop or not the bare ground,” McCann said.

The rolling drone displayed at the Regina show is a scaled-down version built to test the concept. The commercial product will be much larger.

“Each of those sections of the wheels you’ll be able to add on, to make it as big or as small as you like, depending on the size of your farm. So you can scale it up to 100 feet if you want, or you can have it as little as 10 feet,” McCann said.

The flying drone also uses AI in its camera to scan the file on its flight pattern, and then hone in and spray individual weeds.

This air-based Precision.ai drone could potentially be used to spot-spray weeds without operator instructions. | Daniel McCann photo


“It is essentially a drone spot sprayer that is intelligent enough to spray just the weeds and not the crop with no human intervention required,” McCann said.

He said trials are being conducted with the drones on two Saskatchewan farms this summer, and the company plans on offering commercial services next year.

“We’re looking at working with agronomists to provide spray as a service model. What that is, is instead of having to go out and spending a quarter million or half a million dollars on a sprayer, you can go and phone your agronomist or phone us up and we’ll come and take care of your crop protection for less than the cost of the chemicals you’re using today,” McCann said.

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