In the last few decades, new farming technologies like surveillance drones, autonomous tractors and high-tech greenhouses have greatly reduced the costs of growing food and helped increase the food supply. Looking ahead, new advancements in weed control techniques could be the next big agricultural tech breakthrough to help transform farming and improve the environment.
The advent of automated, laser-guided methods of weed control for agriculture could mean that farmers will no longer have to use potentially dangerous herbicides or less effective natural weed control options. In light of public concern with the use of herbicides, some regions of the U.S. have banned certain chemicals used to prevent weed growth. While some farmers gladly accept mandates on herbicides and pesticides because they believe traditional chemicals to be harmful to people and/or the environment, most natural weed control methods come at a high price. Natural herbicides cannot kill the roots of weeds as effectively as more chemically-modified compounds, thus many natural pesticides require farmers to spray their crops multiple times a season—raising the costs to farmers, whereas traditional chemical methods only need one application.
Given decreased efficiency of natural herbicides, it is unsurprising that many farmers are hesitant to embrace the shift away from the traditional chemicals used to protect their crops. Many farmers are looking for cost-effective alternatives that offer environmental protection alongside cost-reduction benefits and some entrepreneurs are stepping up to fill this market need.
Carbon Robotics is one of several players in the automated driving farm technology industry and focuses on building purpose-driven products to automate a specific part of the farming process. The company’s new product, the Autonomous LaserWeeder, utilizes automated driving technology alongside laser beams to zap a field’s weeds—no chemicals required.
Requiring no physical human oversight, the device can fully weed anywhere from 15-to-20 acres a day. Today’s average farm team, on the other hand, would need at least a week to treat the same acreage. The Automated Laserweeder can also work at any time of day, in any weather, and ultimately decreases the cost of running a farm.
Beyond efficiency, the Autonomous LaserWeeder is much friendlier to the overall health of a farm’s soil and plants. Some of the longest-used chemical herbicides are those which selectively kill weeds, allowing farmers to save time and labor by indiscriminately spraying all crops. Unfortunately, these herbicides that selectively kill weeds harm the farm’s soil over time, with some even sterilizing the soil.
Although some farmers continue to use chemical-based methods and support the soil through other means, many farmers choose more natural herbicides for the sake of their soil. Since these methods are not selective towards agricultural plants and cannot kill all weeds, farms that use natural herbicides often face lower crop yields and higher labor costs overall as they willingly sacrifice some of their profits for the sake of the soil’s health.
Laserweeding technology would allow farmers to benefit from the time-saving advantages of selective herbicides by using high-resolution cameras to differentiate weeds from crops. This technology could also help farmers maintain profits while avoiding harm to the health of the soil.
Heavily reducing chemical herbicide use would likely directly translate into reduced operating costs for most farmers since these types of chemical herbicides account for nearly 30% of total farming expenses on average according to surveys.
Laserweeding may also have direct benefits for human health. Current estimates suggest that the use of pesticides in the last half-century has caused major soil depletion, leading researchers to estimate that some vegetables have lost up to 40% of their nutritional value compared to older versions of those crops. Since laserweeding would allow farmers to avoid any chemicals, over the long-term, it is likely more beneficial for the soil than even the safest herbicides. Further, by leaving the soil untouched and unmodified, laserweeding negates the need for herbicidal additives that compromise the land’s chemical integrity, benefiting both the farmer and the environment.
As more farmers learn of and gain access to this technology, it is likely many will opt to take advantage of its many benefits, and herbicides will become less and less popular on a commercial level. However, as with any new technology comes an adoption curve since many smaller farmers will likely be unable to embrace this new technology immediately or until prices decline and the products become more widely available.
In the interim, for many farmers, traditional pesticides are going to continue to be the most cost-effective way to keep their farms running. For this reason, regulators should not force farmers to immediately cease utilizing traditional chemicals. Rather than ban herbicides with harmful chemicals, policymakers should ensure that regulations don’t block or slow the development of farming technology like laserweeding.
As the American agricultural industry embraces laserweeding and other technological advancements are developed and hit the market, it could largely negate the future need for chemical herbicides.