Robots fight weeds in challenge to agrochemical giants – Tech News

The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois, Switzerland. — Reuters

YVERDON-LES-BAINS, Switzerland / CHICAGO: In a field of sugar beet in Switzerland, a solar-powered robot that looks like a table on wheels scans the rows of crops with its camera, identifies weeds and zaps them with jets of the liquid of its mechanical tentacles.

pesticides and seeds industry by reducing the need for universal herbicides and the genetically modified (GM) crops that tolerate them.

Dominated by companies such as Bayer, DowDuPont, BASF and Syngenta, the industry is bracing for the impact of digital (19659004) REFILE – ADDING PICTURE TAKEN The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is ​​pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois, Switzerland May 18, 2018. Photo taken May 18, 2018. REUTERS / Denis Balibouse ” width=”940″ src=””/>

ecoRobotix's autonomous weeding machine being put through the paces during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois, Switzerland.

The stakes are high. Herbicide sales are worth US $ 26bil (RM103.19bil) a year and account for 46% of pesticides revenue overall while 90% of GM seeds have some herbicide tolerance built in, according to market researcher Phillips McDougall.

“Some of the profit pools that are now in the hands of the big agrochemical companies will shift, partly to the farmer and partly to the equipment manufacturers, “said Cedric Lecamp, who runs the US $ 1bil (RM3.97bil) Pictet-Nutrition fund that invests in companies along the food supply chain.

In response, producers such as Germany's Bayer have sought partners for their own precision spraying systems while ChemChina's Syngenta, for example, is looking to develop crop protection products suited to the new equipment.

While still in its infancy, the plant-by-plant approach, heralds a marked shift from the standard methods of crop production.

Now, non-selective weedkillers such as Monsanto's Roundup are sprayed on the vast tracts of land planted with tolerant GM seeds, driving one of the most lucrative business models in the industry.

'See and spray'

But ecoRobotix, developer of the Swiss weeder, considers its design times. The company said it was close to the signing of a financial deal with investors and was due to go on the market by early 2019.

Blue River, a Silicon Valley startup bought by US tractor company Deere & Co. for US $ 305mil (RM1.20bil) last year, have also developed a machine using on-board cameras to distinguish weeds from crops and only squirt herbicides where necessary.

A mock- up model of a Blue River Technology See & Spray herbicides on weeds in a farm field is seen in Sunnyvale, California.

Its “See and Spray” weed control machine , which has been tested in the US cotton fields, is towed by a tractor and the developers estimate it could cut herbicide by 90% g on similar precision spraying kits as are other startups such as Denmark's Agrointelli.

ROBO Global, an advisory firm that runs a robotics and automation investment US $ 4bil (RM15.86bil), believes plant- by-plant precision spraying will only gain in importance.

 Bryon Majusiak, a senior mechanical engineer with Blue River Technology, works on his computer on April 23, 2018. REUTERS / Stephen Lam

Bryon Majusiak, a senior mechanical engineer with Blue River Technology, works on his computer next to a tractor as others assemble a See & Spray herbicides on weeds in a far m field in Sunnyvale, California.

“A lot of the technology is already available. It's just the question of packaging it at the right cost for the farmers, “said Richard Lightbound, Robo's CEO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“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, “he said.

'Pause for thought'

While Blue River, based in Sunnyvale, California, is testing a product in cotton fields, it plans to branch into other major crops such as soy. It expects to make the product of the family is available to farmers in about four to five years, helped by Deere's vast network of equipment dealers.

 Spray nozzle assemblies for the Blue River Technology California, April 23, 2018. Picture taken April 23, 2018. REUTERS / Stephen Lam

Spray nozzle assemblies for the Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine (19659006) ROBO's Lightbound and Pictet's Lecamp said that they were excited by the project and Jenev Shah, deputy manager of the £ 152mil (RM812.24mil) Sarasin Food & Agriculture Opportunities fund, said the technology would put Bayer and Syngenta's crop businesses at risk while seed companies could be hit – albeit to a lesser extent.

“The fact that a tractor and row-cropping company such as John Deere did this means it will not be long before corn or soybean farmers in the US Midwest will start using precision spraying,” Shah said.

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

Still, the developments are giving investors in agrochemicals stocks pause for thought, according to Berenberg analyst Nick Anderson. And agrochemical giants are taking note.

Bayer, which will become the world's largest 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.

 Engineers assemble a Blue River Technology See & Spray a herbicides on a field in Sunnyvale, California, April 23, 2018. Photo taken April 23, 2018. REUTERS / Stephen Lam

Engineers assemble a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine.

The German partners plan to outpace rivals by using an on-board arsenal of up to six different herbicides and Bayer commercial model – rather than cannibalising its current business.

“I would assume that within three years we would have a robust commercially feasible model, Liam Condon, the head of the Bayer's crop science division, said in February.

“I'm not concerned in terms of damping sales. We rather offer a prescription for a weed-free field, and we get paid on the basis of the quality of the outcome, “he said.

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

BASF said the Bosch precision spraying collaboration was very interesting but it was not yet completed.

'Part of the story '

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

“We will be part of the story, by making formulations and new molecules that are developed specifically for this technology, “said Renaud Deval, global head of weed control at Syngenta, which was bought by ChemChina last year.

Syngenta is looking into partnerships where it can contribute products and services, Deval said.

Still, Sarasin's Shah said the big agrochemical businesses would need to accelerate spending on getting their businesses ready for new digital agricultural technology.

“The established players need to invest more 10 years' time. “The sense of urgency will increase as farmers start to adopt some of the more advanced kits that are coming out,” he said.

Michael Underhill, chief investment officer at Capital Innovations, also said the major players may be underestimating the on their pesticides businesses.

“He said,” leaning and growing, “said Underhill.

He said the GM seeds market “

” Instead of buying the Cadillac of the seeds or the Tesla of the seeds, they may be buying the Chevy version, “Underhill said.

New weapons

The advent of precision blistering of global blockbusters such as glyphosate is (19659002) Regulators have (19659002) Michael Owen, associate chair at Iowa State University's Department of Agronomy, reckons it would now cost agrochemical giants up to an almost prohibitive US $ 400mil (RM1.58bil) to develop a next-generation universal weedkiller.

Bayer's Condon said in the current environment broad-spectrum or non-selective herbicides.

“Everything that comes to be selective in nature. There will not be a new glyphosate. That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime product, “said Condon.

For now, the industry is reviving and reformulating the older, broad-spectrum agents known as dicamba and 2,4-D to finish off glyphosate-resistant weeds – and it is selling new GM crops tolerant to those herbicides too.

Precision spraying could have been established herbicides development at ecoRobotics in Yverdon-les Bains.

But experts say new products will still be needed for the new technology and some chemical firms are considering reviving experimental herbicides once deemed too costly or complex.

“Because we're now giving the grower an order of the amount of herbicide they're using, all of a sudden these are more expensive, exotic herbicides are now in play again, “said Willy Pell, Blue River director of new technology.

” They're actually singing resources to looking through their backlog, kind of cutting room, and rethinking these different materials with our machine in mind, “he said. – Reuters

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