Robots fight weeds in challenge to agrochemical giants

    YVERDON-LES-BAINS, Switzerland/CHICAGO (Reuters) – In a subject of sugar beet in Switzerland, a solar-powered robotic that appears like a desk on wheels scans the rows of crops with its digital camera, identifies weeds and zaps them with jets of blue liquid from its mechanical tentacles.

    Present process last checks earlier than the liquid is changed with weedkiller, the Swiss robotic is one in all new breed of AI weeders that buyers say might disrupt the $100 billion pesticides and seeds business by decreasing the necessity for common herbicides and the genetically modified (GM) crops that tolerate them.

    Dominated by firms akin to Bayer, DowDuPont, BASF and Syngenta, the business is bracing for the impression of digital agricultural know-how and a few companies are already adapting their enterprise fashions.

    The stakes are excessive. Herbicide gross sales are price $26 billion a yr and account for 46 % of pesticides income total whereas 90 % of GM seeds have some herbicide tolerance inbuilt, in keeping with market researcher Phillips McDougall.

    “A number of the revenue swimming pools that are actually within the fingers of the massive agrochemical firms will shift, partly to the farmer and partly to the tools producers,” mentioned Cedric Lecamp, who runs the $1 billion Pictet-Diet fund that invests in firms alongside the meals provide chain.

    In response, producers akin to Germany’s Bayer have sought companions for their very own precision spraying methods whereas ChemChina’s Syngenta [CNNCC.UL], for instance, is seeking to develop crop safety merchandise suited to the brand new tools.

    Whereas nonetheless in its infancy, the plant-by-plant method heralds a marked shift from commonplace strategies of crop manufacturing.

    Now, non-selective weedkillers akin to Monsanto’s Roundup are sprayed on huge tracts of land planted with tolerant GM seeds, driving one of the vital profitable enterprise fashions within the business.


    However ecoRobotix, developer of the Swiss weeder, believes its design might scale back the quantity of herbicide farmers use by 20 occasions. The corporate mentioned it’s near signing a financing spherical with buyers and is because of go in the marketplace by early 2019.

    Blue River, a Silicon Valley startup purchased by U.S. tractor firm Deere & Co. for $305 million final yr, has additionally developed a machine utilizing on-board cameras to differentiate weeds from crops and solely squirt herbicides the place obligatory.

    Its “See and Spray” weed management machine, which has been examined in U.S. cotton fields, is towed by a tractor and the builders estimate it might lower herbicide use by 90 % as soon as crops have began rising.

    German engineering firm Robert Bosch here can be engaged on comparable precision spraying kits as are different startups akin to Denmark’s Agrointelli here

    ROBO International, an advisory agency that runs a robotics and automation funding index tracked by funds price a mixed $Four billion, believes plant-by-plant precision spraying will solely achieve in significance.

    “Numerous the know-how is already obtainable. It’s only a query of packaging it collectively on the proper value for the farmers,” mentioned Richard Lightbound, Robo’s CEO for Europe, the Center East and Africa.

    “When you can scale back herbicides by the issue of 10 it turns into very compelling for the farmer when it comes to productiveness. It’s additionally eco pleasant and that’s clearly going to be highly regarded, if not obligatory, at some stage,” he mentioned.


    Whereas Blue River, primarily based in Sunnyvale, California, is testing a product in cotton fields, it plans to department into different main crops akin to soy. It expects to make the product broadly obtainable to farmers in about 4 to 5 years, helped by Deere’s huge community of apparatus sellers.

    ROBO’s Lightbound and Pictet’s Lecamp mentioned they have been excited by the challenge and Jeneiv Shah, deputy supervisor of the 152 million pound ($212 million) Sarasin Meals & Agriculture Alternatives fund, mentioned the know-how would put Bayer and Syngenta’s crop companies in danger whereas seed companies might be hit – albeit to a lesser extent.

    “The truth that a tractor and row-crop oriented firm akin to John Deere did this implies it gained’t be lengthy earlier than corn or soybean farmers within the U.S. Midwest will begin utilizing precision spraying,” Shah mentioned.

    Whereas the know-how guarantees to economize, it might be a troublesome promote to some U.S. farmers as 5 years of bumper harvests have depressed costs for staples together with corn and soybeans. U.S. farm incomes have dropped by greater than half since 2013, decreasing spending on tools, seeds and fertilizer.

    Nonetheless, the developments are giving buyers in agrochemicals shares pause for thought, in keeping with Berenberg analyst Nick Anderson. And agrochemical giants are taking observe.

    Bayer, which can develop into 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 “good spraying” analysis challenge.

    The German companions plan to outpace rivals through the use of an on-board arsenal of as much as six totally different herbicides and Bayer hopes the enterprise will put together it for a brand new business mannequin – relatively than cannibalizing its present enterprise.

    “I’d assume that inside three years we might have a strong commercially possible mannequin,” Liam Condon, the top of Bayer’s crop science division mentioned in February.

    The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured throughout checks on a sugar beet subject close to Bavois, Switzerland Might 18, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

    “I’m not involved when it comes to damping gross sales as a result of we don’t outline ourselves as a quantity vendor. We relatively supply a prescription for a weed-free subject, and we receives a commission primarily based on the standard of the end result,” he mentioned.

    Bayer agreed to promote its digital farming ventures, together with the Bosch challenge, to German rival BASF as a part of efforts to win antitrust approval to purchase Monsanto. However BASF will grant Bayer an unspecified license to the digital property and merchandise.

    BASF mentioned the Bosch precision spraying collaboration was very attention-grabbing nevertheless it was too early to remark additional because the transaction had not accomplished.


    Syngenta, which was an investor in Blue River earlier than Deere took over, mentioned some great benefits of the brand new know-how outweighed any potential threats to its enterprise mannequin.

    “We might be a part of the story, by making formulations and new molecules which can be developed particularly for this know-how,” mentioned Renaud Deval, world head of weed management at Syngenta, which was purchased by ChemChina final yr.

    Whereas it has no plans to speculate straight in engineering, Syngenta is wanting into partnerships the place it may contribute merchandise and providers, Deval mentioned.

    Nonetheless, Sarasin’s Shah mentioned the massive agrochemical companies would wish to speed up spending on getting their companies prepared for brand new digital agricultural know-how.

    “The established gamers want to speculate much more than they at present are to be positioned higher in 10 years’ time. The sense of urgency will improve as farmers begin to undertake a number of the extra superior kits which can be popping out,” he mentioned.

    Michael Underhill, chief funding officer at Capital Improvements, additionally mentioned the most important gamers could also be underestimating the potential impression on their pesticides companies.

    “Precision results in effectivity, effectivity results in decreased utilization, decreased utilization results in decreased margins or margin compression, and that can result in firms getting leaner and meaner,” mentioned Underhill.

    He mentioned the GM seeds market would additionally take successful if machine studying takes over the function genetic engineering has performed thus far in shielding crops from herbicides’ pleasant fireplace.

    “As a substitute of shopping for the Cadillac of seeds or the Tesla of seeds, they might be shopping for the Chevy model,” Underhill mentioned.


    The arrival of precision weed killing additionally comes at a time blanket spraying of world blockbusters akin to glyphosate is below fireplace from environmentalists and regulators alike.

    Greater than 20 years of near-ubiquitous use of glyphosate, the lively substance in Monsanto’s Roundup, has created resistant strains of weeds which can be spreading throughout the U.S. farm belt.

    Regulators have raised the bar for bringing blanket chemical brokers to market and the worry of poisonous dangers has been heightened by the talk over the potential impression of glyphosate on well being.

    Michael Owen, affiliate chair at Iowa State College’s Division of Agronomy, reckons it might now value agrochemical giants as much as an virtually prohibitive $400 million to develop a next-generation common weedkiller.

    Bayer’s Condon mentioned within the present atmosphere precision spraying might properly be the ultimate blow to additional makes an attempt to develop new broad-spectrum or non-selective herbicides.

    “Every part that comes tends to be selective in nature. There gained’t be a brand new glyphosate. That was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime product,” mentioned Condon.

    For now, the business is reviving and reformulating older, broad-spectrum brokers referred to as dicamba and a pair of,Four-D to complete off glyphosate-resistant weeds – and it’s promoting new GM crops tolerant to these herbicides too.

    Precision spraying might imply established herbicides whose impact has worn off on some weeds might be used efficiently in additional potent, focused doses, mentioned Claude Juriens, head of enterprise growth at ecoRobotics in Yverdon-les Bains.

    However consultants say new merchandise will nonetheless be wanted for the brand new know-how and a few chemical companies are contemplating reviving experimental herbicides as soon as deemed too expensive or complicated.

    Slideshow (16 Pictures)

    “As a result of we’re now giving the grower an order of magnitude discount within the quantity of herbicide they’re utilizing, swiftly these dearer, unique herbicides are actually in play once more,” mentioned Willy Pell, Blue River director of recent know-how.

    “They’ve really devoted sources to wanting by their backlog, form of chopping room flooring, and rethinking these totally different supplies with our machine in thoughts,” he mentioned.

    Extra reporting by Rod Nickel in Toronto and Simon Jessop in London; enhancing by David Clarke

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