Following a successful Smart Grant application, funded by Innovate UK, a three-year feasibility study called SprayBot will take place delivered by Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) in collaboration with partners Newcastle University, Small Robot Company and Fotenix.
The study will investigate how combining early disease detection techniques such as imaging and spore sensors with robotic machinery can create a system to improve the application of fungicides and biopesticides, with the aim of reducing overall pesticide use.
Richard Glass, sector lead at CHAP, said: “Plant protection products remain an important input for growers, ensuring they can reliably produce crops to feed the world’s rapidly expanding population.
“But their risk-based cautionary use and application could be improved, helping promote the sector’s sustainability and environmental credentials, whilst helping protect the future of the effective chemistry that remains.
“Thanks to significant advances within the world of agri-tech, it’s now possible to use targeted ‘variable rate’ applications of other inputs such as nutrition.
“SprayBot aims to investigate a system that can do the same for fungicides and biopesticides – detecting and mapping crop disease and then applying product at a variable rate to small areas of the crop. In the future, this could also extend to an individual plant or even leaf.
“We’re delighted to be working with our partners on this exciting project that will make precision fungicide applications a reality.”
It is hoped that SprayBot will give farmers a valuable tool in implementing sustainable farming practices, while also aiding the adoption of biologicals and other integrated pest management techniques and proactively addressing the Government’s net-zero target.
Disease forecasting and diagnostics will come from Newcastle University, with crop imaging and analytics from Fotenix, spray application from Silesoe Spray Application Unit and autonomous farm robotics from the Small Robot Company.
Dr Charles Veys, managing director at Fotenix said: “The protection of future food security relies on the viability of novel and sustainable alternatives to protect our crops. SprayBot brings together the latest in disease profiling alongside automated platforms, which close the loop from early detection to impactful treatment, bringing savings to both the farm’s bottom line and its environmental footprint.
“Fotenix is excited to continue to work alongside Small Robot Company to push back the envelope of possibility in farm services and to benefit from the vast experience at CHAP and Newcastle University to target this fast-paced development.”
Sam Watson Jones, a co-founder of Small Robot Company, added: “Microspraying could be game-changing for the industry. Pressure is increasing from regulators, leaving farmers short of options. SprayBot could enable a new generation of spot treatment chemicals, reduce costs, and significantly reduce the impact on biodiversity.
“Up to 95% of chemicals are wasted in the current farming system. Unfortunately, if you treat the whole field the same, waste is inevitable. Robotic precision application technology will be both economically and environmentally sustainable. The best of both worlds.”