Weeding is unpleasant for everyone, but modern technology is enabling farmers worldwide to eliminate weeds in a more effective and environmentally friendly manner.
According to Deanna Kovar of US agricultural machinery behemoth John Deere, the company's new tractor-pulled weed sprayer can cut herbicide use by two thirds.
The See and Spray Ultimate system resembles a conventional field sprayer in that two long arms, or "booms," protrude from either side of the tractor and have spraying nozzles strewn across the underside of each.
The fact that this sprayer has 36 cameras makes it much more high-tech. These continuously scan the plants in front of them and can distinguish between crops and weeds in a split second.
The connected sprinklers are then directed by an artificial intelligence (AI) software system to only spray herbicide onto the specific weeds rather than covering the entire field.
It is seeing and processing a lot, according to Ms. Kovar, vice president of Production and Precision Agriculture Production Systems at John Deere. "Our system is capturing 1.2 billion pixels per second," she says.
There are over 300,000 images in a John Deere database that the software can use to identify the weeds.
The system is currently only available in the US and only works with the three crops corn, soybeans, and cotton.
Many competing businesses, both big and small, have created comparable smart-weeding technologies for farmers around the world. Among them is the German firm Bosch BASF Smart Farming, whose Smart Spraying Solution camera-scanning weeder.
The chief executive and co-founder of Israeli company Greeneye Technology, another producer of AI-driven precision weeding systems, Nadav Bocher, claims that the biggest challenge in farming is how weeds compete with crops for space, nutrients, and water.
His remarks support a 2021 study that estimated the annual economic costs of weeds on just one particular crop, winter wheat in the US and Canada, could reach $2 point 2 billion (£1 point 8 billion).
Mr. Bocher, who asserts that Greeneye's system can reduce usage levels by 80%, says: "It's hard to imagine what kind of catastrophic damage farming has done in the past decades [due to excessive use of herbicide].
"With such a high amount of unintentional soil pollution created, it affects us as consumers and the entire ecosystem. ".
The series "New Tech Economy" examines how technological advancement is expected to influence the new, emerging economic landscape.
According to Mr. Bocher, although such high-tech weeding systems are pricey—Greeneye's costs about $250,000—a large farm could save up to $120,000 annually because of lower herbicide costs and higher crop yields.
According to Daniel McCann, the CEO of a business that is also incorporating AI technology into a spraying solution for farmers, "AI is such a steep change in farming's evolution, it's like moving from ox to tractor.". The company he works for, Precision AI, uses drones to fly over fields in the US Midwest and target weeds, but with a twist in this particular instance.
Precision AI, a Canadian company based in Regina, Saskatchewan, added more than two billion images to their database. The same crop "can look very different if it was planted in, say, sandier soil compared to soil that gets lots of rain and sun," according to Mr. McCann, who claims that this enormous number was required.
The precision spraying drones, which hover about 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground, can provide comfort, according to Mr. McCann. "The market is becoming more conscious of what is in their food, and they are demanding less chemicals on their fruits, vegetables, and everything else. ".
However sophisticated the spraying technique, farmers still have a difficult time controlling weeds. Michael Gore, a professor at Cornell University's SIPS Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, claims that some weeds evolve to look more like the crop and can thus be more difficult to find.
"Biology frequently prevails in the end, but I appreciate how businesses are releasing these ever-evolving tools. ".
Some experts believe that because these new weeding technologies are so expensive, governments should provide financial assistance to farmers so they can afford to purchase them.
According to Prof. Mihalis Kritikos, policy analyst at the European Parliament and authority on the moral and legal implications of cutting-edge technologies, "there is a need for substantial financial subsidies that could help farmers overcome the initial lack of cost-effectiveness of digital technologies.".
One weeding innovation does away with herbicide spraying entirely and instead uses potent thermal lasers to zap weeds after AI-enabled cameras have detected them.
It was created by Carbon Robotics, a Seattle-based company, and is known as the LaserWeeder. Carbon Robotics claims that when it is being pulled by a tractor, it can remove up to 100,000 weeds per hour.
Paul Mikesell, the CEO of Carbon Robotics, explains that the lasers instantly eliminate weeds, and the burned residue is incorporated back into the soil.
In US states like California, Washington, and Idaho, the system has so far been applied to fields of potatoes, onions, and garlic.
The first units sold out when they were first released, Mr. Mikesell continues, and more are currently being produced for the US and Canadian markets. According to reports, expansion into Europe will come later.
Even with the most precise targeting, herbicide spraying can result in the dreaded "spray drift," which farmers can avoid by killing weeds with lasers. Anything you spray outside will inevitably drift in some way, according to Mr. Mikesell.