Smart sprayer knows which herbicide to apply, and when

BASF’s Xarvio advances application technology

It’s clear that public sentiment about perceived food safety and the environment is beginning to have a significant impact on consumer choices. An easy case in point is the marketing of meatless burgers at fast food chains as a way to save the planet from climate change.

In crop production, meanwhile, the use of herbicides is a major focus of public environmental and health concern. Just think how often it’s been in the news lately with that U.S. jury awarding millions in damages for the allegedly carcinogenic impact of glyphosate.

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European restrictions on herbicide use are also extremely stringent and are likely to tighten further. That, in part, led Amazone, a Europe-based farm machinery manufacturer, to introduce the AmaSpot in 2017.

AmaSpot uses GreenSense fluorescent technology to detect chlorophyll, which is found in growing plants. With this technology, the sensor triggers the sprayer, so the appropriate boom nozzle sprays directly on a weed.

This dramatically reduces the amount of herbicide applied to a field in a burn-off, but it has to be pre-emerge. While it can recognize a growing plant, the technology can’t determine whether it is a weed or part of a seeded crop.

Xarvio, a startup technology firm owned by chemical giant BASF, is taking that idea one step further with its Smart Sprayer technology. The developing technology actually identifies the type of plant that sensors see under the boom, and it then uses that information to decide whether or not to spray — and what to spray. That allows the system to differentiate between a growing crop and unwanted weeds, so it will work for in-season applications. And because it can identify the plant species, the system offers the ability to maximize efficacy by selectively applying multiple products in a single pass.

“Basically on the go with the sprayer, it can sense the plant, detect what species it is, and most importantly choose the right active ingredient to best control that plant,” said Warren Bills, commercialization and partnerships lead at Xarvio, when he spoke with Country Guide at the Ag in Motion farm show near Langham, Sask., in July.

“We’re in the concept phase right now, but you have the opportunities to have multiple boom lines with multiple nozzles or maybe multiple boom lines out of a single nozzle.”

Warren Bills, at a display at the Ag in Motion farm show, explains how the sensors detect a plant variety then determine what, if anything, to spray on it.
photo: Scott Garvey

Other systems are similar in that they sense and spray, Bills said. “The difference in the concept we’re working on is that we can recognize not just that it’s a green plant, but actually what type of green plant it is. It can differentiate between crops and weeds.”

Aside from easing environmental concerns, this also offers producers a way to save money on inputs.

“First, there’s an opportunity to find cost savings, and you can’t argue with that,” Bills said. “And second, I don’t think you could talk to anybody and say that spraying bare ground is a good use of product. Treating individual plants is what we’re aiming towards. We might not be allowed to blanket a plot in the future.”

Currently, the company is field-testing units equipped with the Smart Spray system in the U.S. and Europe. Bills explained that engineers are looking at a variety of possible impacts on its efficiency, such as what is the optimal height for the boom, whether dust will affect the sensors and lenses, and whether vibration can change the readings.

“It’s encouraging,” Bills said of the results so far. “We’ve taken this from concept to field testing in a very short period of time. (But) it’s probably too early to pinpoint a year when we would be commercializing.”

When pressed for a ballpark estimate, however, Bills thinks there could be an initial batch of field units available to producers in as little as three years.

Although Xarvio is a BASF subsidiary, Smart Spray is technology the entire industry could use. It won’t simply be designed to work only with BASF products.

“It doesn’t much matter to Xarvio what product is in the tank,” Bills said. “We just want that product to be used in the right way. And guys want choice (of product use) as well.”

Because Xarvio isn’t an equipment manufacturer, there will likely be future partnerships with major brands to incorporate the Smart Sprayer technology into sprayers as an OEM feature.

“We launched the Xarvio brand last June,” Bills said. “We have a unique colour and a unique name and a great startup culture. That allows us to move quickly and partner agnostically with companies BASF may not have traditionally partnered with.”

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