Hidden behind a massive crop sprayer in the robotics and AI section of CES 2020, John Deere showed off a much smaller piece of smart farm equipment being designed to help farmers target weed control with herbicides in their crops more precisely.
Called “See and Spray,” the device would be pulled behind a tractor to target weeds that find their way into crops of all types. It could reduce weeds by up to 50% when introduced commercially, and up to 90% in future years.
The goal is to cut down on herbicide use to help protect ground water and rivers and increase crop production. The ultimate goal is to continue to advance ways to feed the world’s burgeoning population.
In the iteration shown at CES, See and Spray has about two dozen sprayer nozzles hanging downward from a beam about 5 feet wide and attached to a tank filled with a liquid herbicide. Just ahead of the nozzles, a camera focuses on several rows of crops.
The smart secret behind See and Spray is in an embedded Nvidia Jetson Xavier, a type of graphics processor that in this case has been trained to know a weed from a crop plant. These artificial intelligence capabilities allow See and Spray to automatically disperse a quick spray of herbicide on a weed in a split second, turning on and then off as the machine rolls along at about 6 mph. With each spray nozzle operating independently, the machine can spray in roughly 4-inch squares across the width of the machine. In the future, the spraying target will be even smaller.
Blue River Technology first unveiled See and Spray about 2016 and then the Illinois-based Deere bought Blue River in 2017 for $305 million.
Some of Blue River’s publicity materials seem to imply that See and Spray is already being used but Willy Pell, director of engineering, said it isn’t yet available commercially. A video on the Blue River website describes the AI process used in See and Spray as similar to training computers in facial recognition where many thousands of images of plants are shown to a computer to train it to see pigweed or other weeds. One farmer is quoted as saying the machine can be used to replace eight to 10 workers who would normally spray for weeds.
See and Spray can also be used for spraying fertilizer and fungicides, according to the video.
Elsewhere in CES booth, Deere demonstrated how it is using near infrared technology as a spectrometer to look at grain as it is processed on a harvester in a field to judge its proteins and other constituents. With that real-time data, a farmer can decide the price at which to sell the grain based on its quality. In addition, cameras on combines can show in real time whether the grain has been sufficiently separated from the chaff in the threshing operation.
Deere also has technology to determine the ingredients in manure to help farmers know how much to use to fertilize crops. Many farmers use waste from farm animals they raise nearby to then be processed into manure.
The massive sprayer dominating the center of the Deere exhibit was more than 25 feet high with sprayer arms stretching 120 feet. Independent sprayer controls on board help distribute the right amount of herbicide. When the machine turns, the nozzle at the end of the sprayer arm will be covering ground more quickly than the nozzle closest to the machine cab, so automation controls the flow to make sure there’s a uniform application to the plants, explained Deanna Kovar, a Deere operations director.
Weeds need to get the right amount of herbicide. Too little means the weed can develop resistance and grow. Too much can be harmful to the environment.
The goal of most of the Deere machines on display is to show farmers ways to be precise with herbicides and fertilizer and increase crop yields. One other goal was to increase interest in technology used in farming.
At tables in the Deere booth, toy Deere tractors and other farm machines were laid out for visitors to push around on artificial turf. Children aren’t allowed inside CES, but the toys provided a good reminder of Deere’s purpose and ultimate audience.