Drone lasers to zap weeds

Marlborough Express - - FOOD - GERALD PIDDOCK

Farm­ers may one day have a new high tech weapon in the war against weeds as AgRe­search be­gins in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether drone-mounted lasers could be used to zap prob­lem plants.

The project would have a cam­era mounted onto a drone or un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle (UAV) that iden­ti­fied weeds based on their chem­i­cal sig­na­tures and how they re­flected light, pro­gramme leader Dr Kioumars Ghamkhar said.

The weed’s lo­ca­tions were then mapped us­ing GPS and the drone would then iden­tify and erad­i­cate the pest plant us­ing a laser.

‘‘From there, we think smart spray­ing [rather than blan­ket or non­tar­geted use of chem­i­cals], or the right kind of laser mounted on the drone could hone in and dam­age the weed.

‘‘We know there are lasers now avail­able that could be suit­able, and that they are ex­tremely ac­cu­rate, so if lasers are used, it would also avoid dam­ag­ing the use­ful plants around the weed.’’

Iden­ti­fy­ing plants by their chem­i­cal sig­na­tures had worked in other pro­jects.

The chal­lenge now was to ac­cu­rately iden­tify weeds so drone-mounted lasers could be ef­fec­tive, or equip­ment mounted on a drone could per­form min­i­mum tar­geted spray­ing, he said.

Weed con­trol meth­ods at the mo­ment were ex­pen­sive and time­con­sum­ing, and of­ten in­volve chem­i­cals that can im­pact on crops, soil qual­ity and wa­ter sources.

Weed con­trol is thought to cost New Zealand agri­cul­ture at least $1.685 bil­lion a year, ac­cord­ing to a study by AgRe­search.

Ghamkhar said he con­sid­ered the chal­lenges farm­ers faced with weed con­trol on hill coun­try when he wrote the pro­posal for the project.

‘‘I know how dif­fi­cult it is to get up there and if this is suc­cess­ful, I think it can do a job which would nor­mally take a farmer two to three days in two to three hours.’’

He said they wanted to de­velop some­thing that could be an ef­fi­cient op­tion for users such as farm­ers, re­gional coun­cils and the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion.

‘‘We’ve al­ready spo­ken with our col­lab­o­ra­tors in the uni­ver­si­ties about the lasers that are avail­able that might be suit­able. The ef­fec­tive­ness of lasers against plants has been tested over­seas be­fore but that was in the lab, and we’ll be tak­ing it out in the field to test and see if it works as we have planned.’’

He hoped to be test­ing the lasers out­side early next year and be test­ing the lasers on drones as early as Au­gust.

Ghamkhar said they would be test­ing the tech­nol­ogy on weeds in­clud­ing gi­ant buttercup, yel­low bris­tle grass and winged this­tle.

‘‘There are is­sues we would have to con­sider such as heat gen­er­ated by the lasers, and the risk of start­ing fire, and we’ll be very con­scious of this par­tic­u­larly where there are dry days or drought con­di­tions.

‘‘We’ll also be look­ing at us­ing a group of small lasers to di­rect at the weed, as op­posed to one large and pow­er­ful laser that might gen­er­ate more heat.’’

The project was awarded just un­der $1 mil­lion and the pro­gramme is funded for three years. If suc­cess­ful, it could lead to it be­ing com­mer­cially de­vel­oped.

Dr Kioumars Ghamkhar.

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