Robots Fight Weeds in Challenge to Agrochemical Giants

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The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois
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. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
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By Ludwig Burger and Tom Polansek
YVERDON-LES-BAINS, Switzerland/CHICAGO (Reuters)

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 blue liquid from its mechanical tentacles

Undergoing final tests before the liquid is replaced with weedkiller, the Swiss robot is one of new breed of AI weeders that investors say could disrupt the $100 billion 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 agricultural technology and some firms are already adapting their business models.

 

The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois
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. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

 

The stakes are high. 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, 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 $1 billion Pictet-Nutrition fund that invests in companies along the food supply chain.

 

A mock-up model of a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect and precisely spray herbicides onto weeds in a farm field is seen in Sunnyvale
A mock-up model of a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect and precisely spray herbicides onto weeds in a farm field is seen in Sunnyvale, California, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Stephen Lam

 

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 standard methods of crop production.

 

An engineer assembles a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine in Sunnyvale, California
An engineer assembles a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect and precisely spray herbicides onto weeds in a farm field in Sunnyvale, California, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Stephen Lam

 

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.

 

‘SEE AND SPRAY’

But ecoRobotix, developer of the Swiss weeder, believes its design could reduce the amount of herbicide farmers use by 20 times. The company said it is close to signing a financing round with investors and is due to go on the market by early 2019.

 

A spray nozzle assembly for the Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine is seen in Sunnyvale
A spray nozzle assembly for the Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine is seen in Sunnyvale, California, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Stephen Lam

 

Blue River, a Silicon Valley startup bought by U.S. tractor company Deere & Co. for $305 million last year, has also developed a machine using on-board 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 towed by a tractor and the developers estimate it could cut herbicide use by 90 percent once crops have started growing.

 

The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois
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. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

 

German engineering company Robert Bosch is also working 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 index tracked by funds worth a combined $4 billion, believes plant-by-plant precision spraying will only gain in importance.

 

Engineers assemble a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect and precisely spray herbicides onto weeds in a farm field in Sunnyvale, California
Engineers assemble a Blue River Technology See & Spray agricultural machine that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to detect and precisely spray herbicides onto weeds in a farm field in Sunnyvale, California, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Stephen Lam

 

“A lot of the technology is already available. It’s just a question of packaging it together 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 widely available to farmers in about four to five years, helped by Deere’s vast network of equipment dealers.

 

The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois
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. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

 

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

 

The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois
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. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

 

“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,” Shah said.

While the technology promises to save money, it could be a tough sell to some U.S. farmers as five years of bumper harvests 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.

 

 

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 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.

 

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