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weeds in young soybean field Tom J. Bechman
ONLY SPRAY THE WEEDS: Is it possible to spray just the weeds and not the entire crop canopy? Various companies and scientists say it is. Here is an update on a specific research effort to meet this goal.

Companies move forward on removing weeds selectively with chemicals

The ability to recognize and spray weeds but not crops continues to progress beyond the concept stage.

In the 1970s you could take out weeds and not touch the crop with low-tech methods. It was called a rope wick, dispensing glyphosate on tall weeds above the soybean canopy. Roundup Ready soybeans made that technology obsolete.

Nearly 50 years later, will super high-tech solutions allow spraying weeds and not the crop, even if the crop is tolerant to the herbicide? Several companies and scientists think so.

John Deere and Blue River Technology have unveiled a hooded sprayer designed for this purpose. Recently, Syngenta and a startup Israeli company, Greeneye Technology, updated the industry on their efforts to accomplish this task.

Nadav Bocher, CEO and co-founder of Greeneye Technology, and Shubhang Shankar, managing director for Syngenta Ventures, explain:

What is the goal of Greeneye Technology?

Bocher: Greeneye’s mission is to dramatically reduce chemical usage while increasing productivity and profitability for farmers.

What is the background of this company?

Bocher: Greeneye started in 2017 as an artificial intelligence scouting platform to provide analytics based on drone imagery. It was during commercialization that the team realized that true value creation from imaging technology would come through a closed loop system in which data is collected, analyzed and acted upon in real time.

The logical use case was to address the inefficient way in which pesticides are sprayed. The company started to develop its precision spraying technology that provides decisions for farmers — where to spray and where not to spray in real-time, with the understanding that the value proposition is clear and easy to quantify.

Why did Syngenta decide to invest in Greeneye’s technology when it would mean less chemical sold?

Shankar: We don’t see ourselves as limited to the chemical business. We see ourselves as being in the weed control business. We believe that agriculture is best served through a portfolio of technologies, because a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t fit with the diverse contexts in which agriculture is practiced.

We’re always interested in technologies that achieve a desired outcome on a farm, and we see Greeneye’s technology as complementary to our business. What may change is the business model that supports a specific technology. That is something we will evaluate and implement accordingly. We may move away from charging for chemicals by volume to charging for an outcome. The business model will be tailored to the organization’s needs, not the other way around.

John Deere is developing a stand-alone sprayer called See and Spray based on Blue River Technology. Is this also Greeneye’s goal?

Shankar: Blue River Technology and John Deere deserve a lot of credit for being pioneers in exploring the “see and spray” concept, which today has emerged as an exciting area of innovation.

The main difference is between the approach taken to enable “see and spray” precision spraying. Blue River and many other startups follow the “build a machine” approach, while Greeneye has a “build a system” approach.

The “build a machine” approach stacks multiple technology risks. Startups must iterate and design a complex piece of moving machinery, as well as a software-enabled system that recognizes, identifies and sprays [weeds] in real time. Doing even one of these things successfully is a challenge. Doing all three simultaneously has a significant impact on time to market, cost, return on investment, technical complexity, potential partnerships and business model.

Additionally, from the farmer’s perspective, they’re less interested in purchasing a whole new machine. A sprayer is a significant purchase. Expecting farmers to purchase another piece of equipment will have a significant decision on their farm economics. We think the strategy of turning a sprayer into a smart machine with our system is much more in line with farmers’ desires.

What are the biggest challenges that must be overcome before Greeneye’s technology could become practical?

Shankar: The challenges can broadly be summarized by the principle that for this technology to be successful, apart from the amount of chemical coming out of the nozzle, there should be little change to existing farm practices. From our perspective, this translates into three key technical targets that we are working toward:

  • Performance — support travel speed of greater than 20 kilometers per hour and efficacy that is greater than 98%
  • Affordability — return of investment within one year
  • Farm practice — easy integration with used and new sprayers

We’re hearing about consultants in the U.S. flying drones over growing fields at low heights to gather information for this project. How does this help you?

Bocher: The company is collecting high-resolution images from multiple locations and crops across the U.S. to adjust its algorithms to the wide range of field conditions each geography introduces. Greeneye’s comprehensive dataset is a key differentiation that enables us to develop robust algorithms that can work in multiple field conditions.

Is artificial intelligence at the heart of developing a system that distinguishes weeds from crops?

Bocher: Yes, artificial intelligence and deep learning are the core technologies in our development. The benefit of these technologies is that they always improve their performance as they’re exposed to a larger dataset.

What benefits can a farmer expect from this technology?

Bocher: The key benefits would be reduced spending on chemicals and the ability to perform precision spraying during the season, after emergence, rather than being restricted to precision spraying only during preemergence. In addition, this technology improves spraying efficacy and control of resistant weeds by spraying premium herbicides precisely.

Our system also functions as a robust scouting platform, collecting high-resolution images from the entire field and processing multiple layers of analytics to provide farmers key insights on their fields.

Will the technology be affordable? How soon will it be available?

Bocher: Affordability is the guiding principle of all our technical and research choices so far. We aim to keep any one-time costs as low as possible, and we’re in discussions to understand viability of different monetization models, such as “pay as you spray” or season-long subscriptions. We’re aiming to have initial units of the system commercially available in 2022.

How does this technology fit with the goal of fighting current resistant weeds and preventing further weed resistance?

Bocher: Greeneye’s SSP [selective spraying] system unlocks more effective herbicides with additional sites of action that can effectively control resistant weeds. These herbicides aren’t widely adopted because it’s too expensive to spray them on a broadcast basis. Greeneye technology enables farmers both to save money on herbicide by spraying it precisely but also improving the weed control efficacy by using more effective herbicides that become affordable with the Greeneye system.

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