After three years of work, an international partnership has realized a precision weeding tool proving that herbicide free agriculture is at hand.
The partnership, formed by research centres, universities, private companies and farmers’ organizations from Spain, Germany, Denmark, France, Poland, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, has completed the first stage of the development of a precision weeding prototype tool that allows progress in eradicating the use of herbicides. The WeLASER project is funded by the EU within its “Horizon 2020” programme.
The prototype includes an autonomous vehicle that drives through the crop and is equipped with an advanced detection system based on artificial intelligence (AI) through image acquisition and data processing, which allows it to distinguish and localize the centre of growth of the weed to be eradicated. Once targeted through the scanner, it directs the high-powered fibre laser source to that meristem. This fast modulation concept allows precise energy pulses to be directed for highly efficient weed treatment. Data management is managed by a cloud computing architecture and the system includes the IoT technology.
While this project is currently concluding this first phase of development, further work will be needed, for example, to reduce the time required to work in the field, to make the prototype easier to handle and connect, and to reduce production costs in order to achieve a marketable model on the market.
WeLASER is the result of the cooperation of 10 partners from eight EU member states. On the Spanish side, the Centro de Automática y Robótica (CAR) belonging to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and coordinator of the project and the Coordinadora de Organizaciones de Agricultores y Ganaderos (COAG); on the German side, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) and the company Futonics Laser GmbH (FUT); from Denmark, the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences of the University of Copenhagen (CPH); from France, the company AgreenCulture (AGC); from Italy, the Interdepartmental Centre for Industrial Agri-Food Research of the University of Bologna (UNIBO); from Poland, the Instytut Ekologii Terenów Uprzemysłowionych (Institute of Ecology of Industrial Areas) (IETU) in Katowice; from Belgium, the Department of Agricultural Economics of the Faculty of Biosciences Engineering of the University of Ghent; and from the Netherlands (UGENT), Van Den Borne Projecten BV, the innovation department of the Van Den Borne Aardappelen (VDBP) farm located in Reusel.
For Pablo González de Santos, from the CSIC’s Centro de Automática y Robótica, coordinator of the project, “WeLASER has been a perfect collaboration between leading organizations in each of their fields of work, which has made it possible to have the latest technologies and advances necessary for the development of such a cutting-edge and necessary project.”
Beyond the development of the prototype, this project has resulted in the development of different innovations with multiple applications such as a high-power fibre laser source for the control of adventitious weeds through precise energy pulses, with an innovative pump and cooling concept that minimizes the energy demand of the laser for the weeding process; an improved power supply system for autonomous robotic platforms; an intelligent navigation manager for autonomous robots applicable to precision farming that enables navigation throughout the farm, not limited exclusively to the crop field and integrates different AI methodologies to identify various types of crops, including wide and narrow crops; and an AI-based laser weed control implement that enables a wide working range for individualized plant treatment in crops of different types, while complying with all safety regulations required for working with laser technology.