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February 08, 2013

Germans developing weed control using laser armed drones. What could go wrong ?

German scientists are seriously developing a laser based system of weed control in order to be more "environmentally friendly" than using chemical poisons. What could go wrong ? Laser armed Robots and drones for farming and weed control and they will have artificial intelligence algorithms and high resolution cameras for recognizing plants. They would have the goal of having this on a large scale for better "organic farming". The laser system is currently being tested in a greenhouse.

Drones or small robotic planes would fly over the fields. These could also fight weeds near protected waters, where herbicides are not allowed to be used. According to researcher Christian Marx, the German railway service has expressed interest in the project as well. "30 percent of the railway tracks are in water protection areas where you can't use herbicides anyway."

Could robots or drones weeding beds and fields using laser be the answer? At the moment this is only a pipe dream, but in a few years such scenarios could be far from impossible. The laser beam is directed into the growth centre of the plant, thus killing it. In a project funded by the German Research Council (DFG), the scientists started by adjusting the energy of the laser precisely and effectively to the type and height of the plant. “We have to place the beam directly where it is needed,” says project leader Prof. Thomas Rath from the Institute of Biological Production Systems.

The scientists in the current project are concentrating on CO² lasers, which emit beams in the mid-infrared range.

A movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger had laser armed robots and drones

The second major challenge is recognising the plant. What is an undesirable plant and what is desirable, and where precisely must the laser be aimed? Here the scientists have developed a clever system. Cameras film the plants, and software measures the contours of each individual plant so that the laser beam can be optimally positioned. “We have algorithms for many different weeds,” says Professor Rath. It becomes difficult when weeds and cultivated plants are very close together and overlap. “The key to success is recognising them so that we destroy only the weeds,” explains Marx.



At the moment the equipment runs on rails in a greenhouse. Under this an area of about one square metre can be “treated”. The application of laser technology is conceivable in many different areas, and industry has shown great interest. “The system could soon be used wherever it is relatively easy to set up tracks over a bed – for example in greenhouses or nurseries,” Professor Rath predicts.

It is more difficult in large fields: setting up lasers on trailers is out of the question, as it would be impossible to aim precisely due to the vibrations. “We are currently investigating the use of drones – little robots that would swarm over the field,” says Professor Rath. Laser is also of interest for weed control in water protection areas or near stations, where the use of herbicides is not permitted.

SOURCE - Leibniz Universit├Ąt Hannover and Laser Zentrum Hannover, Deutsche Welle

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