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Sprayers with lasers save chemical costs

Jeff Caldwell 09/30/2013 @ 10:09am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Want to trim away about three-fourths of your pesticide costs? That's the likely outcome from putting to work a new sprayer system now under development.

Researchers with USDA-ARS and the Ohio State University (OSU) College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences have developed a new "intelligent" sprayer system that uses a combination of lasers and computer algorithms to monitor specific field conditions and apply only the amount of chemical needed for each plant in the field. Right now, the system is optimized for orchards, but subsequent research is focusing on how it can be adapted to other machines and crops, according to OSU ag engineer and sprayer technology expert Erdal Ozkan.

"This is the only sprayer of its kind in the world," Ozkan says in a university report. "It works by discharging pesticide sprays only when there is a target tree in sight and it matches the pesticide spray rate to the target tree characteristics, including its height and leaf density, in real-time."

A laser monitors the sprayer's surroundings and can visually record when the unit is adjacent to a tree to spray. And, the laser can record its size, which is plugged into a computer program, or algorithm, that uses a database to determine how much chemical to apply based on that size. So, the exact amount of chemical is applied in exactly the places where it's needed, nowhere else.

“Conventional orchard sprayers waste a considerable amount of pesticide because they keep a constant application rate throughout the growing season. They don’t take into account the amount of foliage present at different growth stages. But the intelligent sprayer does, by using a laser scanner mounted on the sprayer," Ozkan says. "This new technology will significantly reduce the amount and cost of pesticides for growers by accurately targeting spray applications. Tests we conducted in an apple orchard showed that the intelligent sprayer reduced spray volume by 47% to 73% with much less off-target loss on the ground, through tree gaps, and in the air."

Other benefits of the system, Ozkan says, include:

  • Less chance of overspraying pesticides.

  • Appropriate amount of spray use depending on varying growth stages.

  • More consistent spray deposition uniformity inside canopies at different growth stages.

  • Better spray trajectory control.

  • A 40% to 87% reduction in spray loss beyond tree canopies.

  • Up to 87% less airborne drift.

  • A 47% to 73% reduction of spray consumption.

  • A 68% to 93% reduction in spray loss on the ground.

There's an environmental component to smarter application of pesticides, but the main thrust behind the development of OSU and USDA's "intelligent" sprayer is its cost savings to the industry; reports indicate farmers spend more than $4 billion on pesticides each year. Streamlining this cost component of raising a crop -- be it an orchard fruit or grain or oilseed crop like corn and soybeans -- could have huge implications for farmers if the technology, or something similar, can be adopted on a wide scale.

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