After years of being burned by glyphosate, the generic name for Roundup herbicide, weeds like palmer amaranth, marestail, and giant ragweed are able to live long and prosper where the widely-used chemical is no longer effective. That concerns Steve Young, a weed ecologist with the University of Nebraska West Central Research Center in North Platte, Neb.
“Right now it’s sometimes recommended that if you’ve got a herbicide resistant weed population to go out and spray more or do another application because that will kill it, maybe,” Young said.
Imagine fleets of small robots, constantly roaming the rows, seeking and destroying alien plant-forms. Today, farmers spray herbicide on everything to kill a few weeds. Young said robots could treat each weed individually.
“The computer would know what species it’s dealing with, the appropriate weed control tool, and you’d be done with it,” Young said.
In a series of seminars earlier this year at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, researchers talked about the opportunities and challenges for weed control robots. At this point, programming sensors to recognize the difference between crops and weeds is a major technical hurdle, but one researchers are chipping away at. For instance, Young said, the smartphone app Leafsnap can identify dozens of different tree species but that technology is not yet fast or smart enough to spot a weed in real-time in the field.
“Things are kind of slow,” Young said. “It’s kind of crude and clumsy right now.”
But herbicide resistance is a problem with no simple solutions and Young believes if scientists can someday roll out a robot that works, the message to weeds will be that resistance is futile.