Monday, November 30, 2015 by Chris Draper
While herbicide resistance has existed for decades, the number of weed species resistant to glyphosate and other herbicides has spiked in recent years. Consequently, more time, energy and money has to be spent on weed control. In lieu of herbicide resistance, scientists from a Bosch startup called Deepfield have developed an A.I. robot, which could revolutionize current farming methods and reduce the environmental impact of weed control.
The robot, dubbed BoniRob, takes the form of a small, compact car. Through the use of lasers and satellite navigation, BoniRob can navigate around a field and detect its location to the closest decimeter, according to the designers. The robot is the end product of a public joint project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. BoniRob was designed with the intent of alleviating farmers of the burden of keeping weeds at bay.
Herbicide use is more than a burden for farmers, however. It is a menace that plagues the health and well-being of society. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s widely used RoundUp herbicide, was deemed probably carcinogenic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The health risks attached to glyphosate are countless. According to the Journal of Pesticide Reform, “Symptoms of exposure to glyphosate include eye irritation, burning eyes, blurred vision, skin rashes, burning or itchy skin, nausea, sore throat, asthma and difficulty breathing, headache, lethargy, nose bleeds, and dizziness. Glyphosate and glyphosate-containing herbicides caused genetic damage in laboratory tests with human cells, as well as in tests with laboratory animals. Exposure is linked with increased risks of the cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 37 miscarriages, attention deficit disorder, as well as Parkinson’s disease.”
Researchers estimate farmers need to produce at least three percent more crops each year to keep up with the demands of the world’s growing population. The robot was built as a type of mobile plant, which could perform a variety of tasks, from distinguishing crops versus weeds through image recognition to snipping shrubs out of existence with a ramming rod.
During a trial run on carrot cultivation, the BoniRob hammering rod was able to extinguish 90 percent of weeds without the use of harmful herbicides. For this reason, the researchers believe herbicide use could be in its twilight.
“We are leveraging our expertise in sensor technology, algorithms, and image recognition to make a contribution to improving quality of life, even in areas that are new for Bosch,” Robotics General Manager Amos Albert told sources.
A challenge facing BoniRob during its development was separating weeds from plants. In an effort to overcome this problem, Albert and his team used machine learning, which involves a ginormous database of files where the weeds are underlined. They marked various pictures as good and other pictures as bad. The robot is able to separate plants farmers want versus plants farmers don’t want based upon their size, color and shape.
In addition to exterminating weeds, BoniRob is capable of determining which plants are most likely able to withstand insects and viruses. Furthermore, the robot can aid farmers in determining how much fertilizer should be used on crops.[1,3]
The hope is that herbicide use will be weeded out as more farmers use BoniRob; however, most farmers will have to wait a while before the robot hits the market. Deepfield hasn’t yet disclosed when BoniRob will be available for sale, but is confident the technology will have a major, widespread influence on agriculture.
Check out BoniRob in action in the video below.