Robots have now a new function. Recently, in a field of sugar beet in Switzerland, a solar-powered robot that looks similar to a table on wheels scans the rows of crops with its camera, identifies weeds and zaps them with jets of blue liquid from its mechanical tentacles.

Undergoing final tests before the liquid is replaced with weedkiller, this Swiss robot is one of a new breed of AI weeders that investors say could, in fact, disrupt the $100 billion pesticides and seeds industry by reducing the need for universal herbicides and the genetically modified (GM) crops that tolerate them.

Also, in lieu of this, market researcher Phillips McDougall added that herbicide sales are worth $26 billion a year and account for 46 percent of pesticides revenue overall while 90 percent of GM seeds have some herbicide tolerance built in.
While still in its infancy, the plant-by-plant approach heralds a marked shift from standard methods of crop production. Now, non-selective weedkillers such as Monsanto’s Roundup are sprayed on vast tracts of land planted with tolerant GM seeds, driving one of the most lucrative business models in the industry.

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‘SEE AND SPRAY’

Blue River, a Silicon Valley startup bought by U.S. tractor company Deere & Co, has also developed a machine last year, using onboard cameras to distinguish weeds from crops and only squirt herbicides where necessary.

Its “See and Spray” weed control machine, which has been tested in U.S. cotton fields, is also towed by a tractor and the developers have anticipated that it could cut herbicide use by 90 percent, once crops have started growing.

ROBO Global, which is an advisory firm that runs a robotics and automation investment index tracked by funds worth a combined $4 billion, in fact, believes that plant-by-plant precision spraying would only gain in importance.

To this, Richard Lightbound, Robo’s CEO for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, added that “A lot of the technology is already available. It’s just a question of packaging it together at the right cost for the farmers. If you can reduce herbicides by the factor of 10 it becomes very compelling for the farmer in terms of productivity. It’s also eco-friendly and that’s clearly going to be very popular, if not compulsory, at some stage”.

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‘PAUSE FOR THOUGHT’

ROBO’s Lightbound and Pictet’s Lecamp added that they were excited by the project. Also, Jeneiv Shah, deputy manager of the 152 million pound ($212 million) Sarasin Food & Agriculture Opportunities fund, added that the technology would put Bayer and Syngenta’s crop businesses at risk while seed firms could be hit, however, albeit to a lesser extent.

To this, Shah, in fact, added that “The fact that a tractor and row-crop oriented company such as John Deere did this means it won’t be long before corn or soybean farmers in the U.S. Midwest will start using precision spraying”.

While the technology promises to save money, it could be a tough sell to some of the U.S. farmers as five years of bumper harvests would have depressed prices for staples including corn and soybeans. U.S. farm incomes have dropped by more than half since 2013, reducing spending on equipment, seeds, and fertilizer.

Bayer, which would become the world’s biggest seeds and pesticides producer when its acquisition of GM crop pioneer Monsanto completes, teamed up with Bosch in September for a “smart spraying” research project.

Bayer has, in fact, agreed to sell its digital farming ventures, including the Bosch project, to German rival BASF as part of efforts to win antitrust approval to buy Monsanto. However, BASF would grant Bayer an unspecified license to the digital assets and products.

‘PART OF THE STORY’

Syngenta, which was an investor in Blue River before Deere took over, added that the advantages of the new technology outweighed any potential threats to its business model.

Renaud Deval, global head of weed control at Syngenta, which was bought by ChemChina last year, added that, while it has no plans to invest directly in engineering, Syngenta is looking into partnerships where it can contribute products and services. He also stated that “We will be part of the story, by making formulations and new molecules that are developed specifically for this technology”.

Michael Underhill, chief investment officer at Capital Innovations, also added that the major players might be underestimating the potential impact on their pesticides businesses.

He then added that the GM seeds market would also take a hit if machine learning takes over the role genetic engineering has played so far in shielding crops from herbicides’ friendly fire. His words were, “Instead of buying the Cadillac of seeds or the Tesla of seeds, they may be buying the Chevy version”.

Michael Owen, associate chair at Iowa State University’s Department of Agronomy, reckons it would now cost agrochemical giants up to an almost prohibitive $400 million to develop a next-generation universal weedkiller.

Claude Juriens, head of business development at ecoRobotics in Yverdon-Les Bains, added that precision spraying could mean established herbicides whose effect has worn off on some weeds used successfully in more potent and targeted doses.

But experts have added that new products would be still needed for the new technology and some chemical firms have in fact considered reviving experimental herbicides once deemed too costly or complex.

To this, Willy Pell, Blue River director of new technology, added that “Because we’re now giving the grower an order of magnitude reduction in the amount of herbicide they’re using, all of a sudden these more expensive, exotic herbicides are now in play again. They’ve actually devoted resources to looking through their backlog, kind of cutting room floor, and rethinking these different materials with our machine in mind”.