How Drone-Mounted Lasers May Save the World from Weeds

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When we imagine a future with laser guns, we typically think of classic sci-fi tropes – Han Solo or Captain Picard shooting it out with yet another violent alien baddie. However, the concept of a laser-laden future may come from the sky and the targets won’t be Romulans or Sith Lords but a much more destructive force – weeds.

Researchers with New Zealand-based firm AgResearch, in partnership with the Universities of Auckland and Michigan and NZ-based technology firm Redfern Solutions Limited, recently harvested a $1 million NZD grant ($711,00 USD) from the New Zealand government. The goal is to create a “map and zap” program which will deploy drones equipped with lasers and sensors to eradicate the thousands of acres of weeds that threaten the country’s crops. According to an AgResearch study, weeds cost New Zealand’s bustling agricultural sector around $1.69 billion ($1.2 billion USD) in crop damage every year.

“The idea is to mount specialist cameras on the drone that can first identify the weeds based on their unique chemical signatures and how they reflect light, and precisely map their locations using GPS,” program lead Kioumars Ghamkhar said in a company press release.

“From there, we think smart spraying (rather than systemic and non-targeted use of chemicals), or the right kind of laser mounted on the drone could home in and damage the weed. We know there are lasers now available that could be suitable, and that they are extremely accurate, so if lasers are used, it would also avoid damaging the useful plants around the weed.”

Traditional weed-slaying programs are wasteful, expensive and time-consuming, using potentially damaging chemicals and lots of water.

“We’ve already spoken with our collaborators in the universities about the lasers that are available that might be suitable,” Ghamkhar said. “The effectiveness of lasers against plants has been tested overseas before but that was in the lab, and we’ll be taking it out in the field to test and see if it works as we have planned.”

If successful, the laser drones (what an amazing movie title!) will provide yet another unmanned aerial weapon for farmers across the globe.

A study released this week predicts the ag drone market will exceed $4 billion in value by 2022 — representing a growth rate of 30 percent.



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