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New Software Offers Potential for Remote Weeding; Local Robotics Get Federal Nod

From MontereyCountyWeekly.com, Sara Rubin, 2 Jun 2011.

One outstanding question before a robotic weeder can become commercially available: Do fertilizers sprayed at concentrations high enough to kill plants need to be registered as herbicides? Photo by Nic Coury.

One outstanding question before a robotic weeder can become commercially available: Do fertilizers sprayed at concentrations high enough to kill plants need to be registered as herbicides? Photo by Nic Coury.

iFarming Meet Field

[Monterey County, CA] — A new imaging machine might not look like a robot to those acquainted with cyborgs or cylons, but a patent-pending technology made its Salinas debut last week with a demonstration that promises to cut the labor costs of thinning and weeding lettuce. Using a tractor-mounted laptop, the visioning software – developed at the University of Arizona with a $115,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Agriculture – detects the color and spacing of plants, then instructs an attached sprayer to apply a lethal concentration of herbicide or fertilizer to unwanted leaves.

Salinas Valley lettuce growers spend as much as $30 million a year – about 3 percent of the cost of production – sending crews with hoes through lettuce fields to thin and weed the rows. Running the tech-assisted tractor through a field would save about $75 per acre, according to estimates by Mark Siemens, a mechanization specialist at the Yuma Agricultural Center and developer of the weeding technology.

Sonya Hammond, Monterey County Director for the UC-Davis Cooperative Extension, says the machine probably won’t replace manual labor entirely, as it won’t be 100 percent effective. “It’s more a matter of speed, efficacy and some labor savings,” she says. “But I don’t think workers would be displaced.”

County Supervisor Simon Salinas knows firsthand the impact automation can have. His family harvested cotton in Texas until the mid-1960s, when mechanical harvesting, in combination with breeding that made machine-ready cotton widely available, caught on industry-wide. “You can’t really stop these advances that make it less stressful on the human body,” Salinas says.

With a reduced demand for labor, Salinas’ family moved to Pajaro and started growing berries for Driscoll. “I tell kids, ‘Your parents picked, and you can become the scientist.’”

Encouraging more high-tech ag jobs also is the focus of Project 17, a Marina-based agricultural technology cluster, which launched in October with a $600,000 contract from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The cluster’s executive director, Susan Barich, envisions the Salinas region becoming the global capital of agricultural technology. “When you get a critical mass of people who are able to work across boundaries, that’s what Silicon Valley was,” she says. “It’s a cluster of companies that exchanged information and employees and shared ideas.”

At a May 18 presentation hosted by the Monterey Bay International Trade Association, Congressman Sam Farr said he sees potential for the Salinas region to become a global center for ag-tech innovations. “The growth of opportunity is unlimited,” he said. “We’ve got the assets to fix rural agricultural economies, like that of Afghanistan.”

With Farr’s encouragement, Barich proposed an international competition for robotic harvesters to bring inventors (and investors) to Salinas to deploy labor-saving technology. “How do we pick strawberries with a robot?” she asked. For now, the competition is in the very early planning stages.

Meanwhile, back in Yuma, Siemens is incorporating feedback from the Salinas demo into the weeder – and hoping it has a commercial future. But some visitors were skeptical. “I saw [similar] machines 20 years ago,” says Jim Linder of NH3 Service Company, a Salinas-area fertilizer applicator. “I don’t know if it’s changed a whole lot.”

Source: MontereyCountyWeekly.com, “New software offers potential for remote weeding; local robotics get federal nod.” by Sara Rubin, 2 Jun 2011.

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