An electronic weeder under development that uses 3D vision to identify a weed's growth point before "zapping" it with a laser is under development in the university's recently opened National Centre for Precision Farming (NCPF). "We have a year-and-a-half to combine these systems into something we can take into the field," said research assistant Kit Franklin. "We will start by putting it into crops like lettuce that are high-value and where there is a demand for zero-residue."
The finished article "will have to be able to compete with a boom sprayer in speed", he added, pointing out that safety is also a hurdle to overcome before commercial launch. "The laser is dangerous. It can blind you or cut your hand off. That's one of the major issues we have to answer."
Meanwhile, a controlled traffic farming project in a field beside the centre restricts vehicles to 20 per cent of the field area, with results being compared to a an uncontrolled field. "That should be much better for the 60 per cent of soil that would otherwise be driven on, but the benefits have never been rigorously investigated," Franklin explained. "The controlled traffic plots are so far yielding better, but it's still to be confirmed if it's viable to go down that route. It's easier in a large square field and will never be a blanket solution."
Similarly, while unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) have yet to establish themselves in field growing, "there are sensors coming onto the market that make them much more useful", he added.
The opportunities offered by small lightweight multiand hyper-spectral cameras for detecting and mapping pests and diseases were among topics discussed at the third Drones for Farming conference, hosted by the NCPF last month.
Dr Richard Green, the centre's academic lead for the UAV Special Interest Group, said: "The increased attendance, and fact that many of those who came are already using drones, shows how this technology is really starting to be appreciated by farmers and agronomists as a valuable tool. It is clear that drone technology has really been taken to heart by the more forward-looking members of the agricultural community."
The group also began providing accredited training courses in drone operation this month. The BASIS Agricultural Awareness Training Course for Drone Operators is also being held on 19 January and 8 March 2016.