A young Scottish entrepreneur has developed an automated spot sprayer which uses a ‘see and spray’ system to identify and target destructive grassland weeds.
Colin Taylor of Lanark-based Taylor Technologies says that his Rumex system enables farmers to use less herbicide, increase grass yields and save money. Combining cameras, computers and artificial intelligence (AI) software fitted to a standard crop sprayer, this development is said to be able to spot weeds as the sprayer moves across the field, with on-board computers analysing the camera feeds.
The automated system controls the sprayer to apply a measured, targeted dose of chemicals to every weed spotted. As it does this, the GPS position of each treated weed is recorded and mapped, enabling detailed data to be retained for analysis. All this takes place in real-time, says Mr Taylor, with no input required from an operator. The system is mainly focused on docks, but does recognise other common weeds such as nettles and thistles, he adds.
The idea for the system came about in 2017 while Mr Taylor was talking with a neighbouring dairy farmer. They discussed the effect that the herbicide has on the grass itself, particularly with blanket spray applications, whereby it kills the weeds but also stunts the grass. Not to mention the expense of such applications. At that time, computer-vision and artificial intelligence technologies were becoming more widespread and easier to implement for novel use cases, says Mr Taylor.
“I saw that we could take the technology that is notably used for facial recognition and self-driving cars and re-purpose it to spot weeds. Combining this with electronic control of a sprayer would mean that we could automatically spot-spray weeds, only activating the sprayer when the weeds are there.”
Mr Taylor continues: “The result is the sprayer is off for the majority of time when it goes across the field, only coming on when a weed is detected. Spot-spraying results in massive reductions of quantities of chemicals used. With the current industry trend of restriction and withdrawals of chemicals, reducing the amount actually used may prolong their life and availability.”
Development on the system started in 2018 while Mr Taylor was undertaking his agricultural technology MSc research project at the Royal Agricultural University. Since then, Mr Taylor has continued to test and refine the system in collaboration with software developers.
He is now ready to take it to the next level and hopes to find a commercial party to work with. “We see real demand for the system”, he says. “It saves money and benefits the farmers who use it. What we are doing for grassland weeds can be replicated for other crops and weeds. Within agriculture, there are many opportunities for vision-based automation of machinery.”
This year the system will carry out work for customers in the local area. “We have a number of farmers that we will do contract spot-spraying for this year. As well as helping reduce their weed burdens, this will provide the opportunity to test the system over a much larger area. “We are constantly improving the technology. This testing will help to further improve the accuracy and efficiency of the system.”