More than 350 000 t of pesticides were sold in the EU alone in 2017. Aside from the potential health effects on the people who farm and consume products exposed to pesticides, the widespread use of pesticides is having serious effects on natural pollinators critical to our food supply and is more generally among the key causes of global insect decline and extinction threat. Precision agriculture can increase the effectiveness of inputs to enhance farm profitability, natural resource management, and environmental and human well-being. The EU-funded Asterix project has embodied these benefits in an autonomous robot by the same name that applies eco-friendly biopesticides only to the weed leaves.
Bigger is better and hits just the spot
Conventional herbicides are applied by blanket spraying a mist to the whole field. In practice, it is very difficult to make the toxic effects 100 % selective for the weeds, resulting in some harm to the crop as well. Further, wind can carry the tiny droplets over significant distances where they can settle on water resources, adjacent vegetation, farm workers, and neighbouring homes and people. As project coordinator Anders Brevik explains: “We have moved the selective properties from the herbicide to our spraying technique. A patented, vision-based, ultra-high-precision nozzle system is integrated with machine learning algorithms trained to differentiate between crops and their weeds.” Asterix sprays relatively large individual droplets of bioherbicide only on the weed leaves. The larger drops minimise drift to non-targets.
Focus on farmers, benefits for all
The result of almost 10 years of development and testing largely in the fields of European farmers, Asterix can work round the clock, weeding most vegetables and herbs at a rate of approximately 1 ha per hour. It reduces the amount of pesticide used by up to 95 % and its 50 l of herbicide are equivalent to the 1 000 l in a conventional sprayer. Weighing about 10 % less than a tractor and sprayer, Asterix can also drive in the field shortly after rain to increase productivity. Importantly, Asterix significantly augments yield. “We know from experience that herbicide use slows down crop development. We thought we might increase yield by about 5 %, but early data in parsley root suggest that we get approximately 45 % higher yield with Asterix,” adds Brevik. He summarises: “Our technology will offer the public food with organic qualities with greater efficiency and lower cost than organic food production. It enables farmers to produce food that is good for consumers, the environment and the climate at an economically viable price.”
Sowing the seeds of change
The team is ramping up to pilot with a few dedicated farmers in Germany and Norway to finalise technology validation. After that, Asterix is preparing a commercialisation plan that will increase sales in those two countries before moving into the rest of Europe. Asterix is on a mission to conquer new land and do its part to save the planet in the process.
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