Germany Developing Laser Armed Drones for Farming and Weed Killing


As unfunny as a subject this is, this is a really ironic story, too.  Right now, the scientists and researchers at the Leibniz University and a laser center in Hanover are currently working on an alternative to herbicides (and I assume pesticides?) that comes in a very strange form as they see it:  a drone equipped with a CO2 laser system.  I mean, this is no YAL-1 or anything, but still — using light to kill weeds!


This is an awesome idea, right?  A laser equipped drone, complete with some sort of artificial intelligence (AI) that allows it to distinguish good plants from bad species.  There is a lot of interest in this in Germany as well; in an article at DW:

Another possibility is drones, or small robotic planes that would fly over the fields. These could also fight weeds near protected waters, where herbicides are not allowed to be used. According to Marx, the German railway service has expressed interest in the project as well.

“30 percent of the railway tracks are in water protection areas where you can’t use herbicides anyway.”

Crazy.  So the Germans are working on a flying weed death machine that incorporates a limited-fire carbon dioxide laser and has intelligence on board that will allow it to distinguish between different types of pests or pest plant species and eliminate them using the on-board laser.  Trials for this machine are currently at least five years out, according to the article at DW.

Along with a host of other ethics and scare-tactic behaviors that will rival the anti-Obama ads on Facebook, there is a main issue here that people will whine over — and I mean such loud whining that it has the potential to change the physical properties of things, like a microwave oven:

If we let drones fly around, aren’t they going to float around and kill our children?!?!

Look – I know it, you know it, George W. Bush and Obama know it, and Fox News knows it:  Drones programmed for weed killing are not going to drive around with abandon slaughtering families and killing schoolchildren.  BUT:  like anything else, there will be accidents that are the cause of human error, and the religious Right will call the accidents “an act of God.”  However, does this happen every time a combine kills a cousin?  No.  But somehow the Devil will get inside of the machines, or perhaps even the machines developed their own intelligence and chose to slaughter innocent men, women, children, and other sentient beings.  It’s maddening what happens when people start slinging scare speak.

Let’s look on the This is AWESOME side of “robot weed wackers,” because frankly these types of technological advances are going to take place.  You will also notice that drones and lasers are going to be added to replace humans in a variety of different working environments; perhaps maybe the most expensive and dangerous gigs will see robots doing more of that work themselves, or assisted/controlled by a human handler.  I’m pretty sure that we’ll also see them first in very small, very specialized applications, and not out there replacing the teams of men and women who labor to do these jobs currently.  This is the one thing that we as humans will always fight no matter what –  we are afraid of anything that takes away a job from a human.  I think what we forget is that robotics and automation don’t take jobs away, they remove the need for a human being to do something menial and exhausting so that the human can go do something more important, like think of more things for which robotics can provide a solution!

Let’s look at just a few advantages of an imagined Laser Drone Weed Eliminator – a specific and unique application also performed by humans:

  • $$$ Savings on LABOR! 
    Sorry folks, it’s a fact of life.  Labor is expensive, increasingly and constantly, and is often the biggest expense that companies have to incur.  If a company that manufactures fixtures, for example, could double their profit by going completely automated in their manufacturing division, believe me that they would do it.  There will more than likely be the need for human tenders and maintenance workers for the robots, so we can presume that there will always be human tasks.
  • $$$ Savings on TIME
    Perhaps JUST as important as money, time is often money, and an automated drone-based device could do the same job every time, regardless of the kind of day the robot is having.  You could also work a robot a solid 24 hour day and never have to bill overtime.
  • Human Safety Factor
    There will be situations where a robot weed wacker will be the better worker for the task.  Case-in-point, clearing out old Juniper trees or weeding thick rose beds.  On a more extreme (and probably more realistic) scenario, think about something like weeding delicate flower beds or hydroponic setups where human interaction is the worst thing for the species.  These are all valid examples that exist in the industries today; both articles I found on this mention having the drone start in a small greenhouse environment or small farm.
  • Transition Time Between Workers
    As with any job, when one worker leaves a job and another takes his or her place, there is a considerable amount of time that will need to be spent bringing the new worker “to speed,” per se.  With a robot worker, presumably we could replace one for another, transfer some logic, and off we go for another 20 hour shift at that worker’s maximum efficiency potential.

We must remember as well that as our population grows and the urgency for agriculture to keep up with demand, pesticides and herbicides will need to decrease in usage altogether.  This is yet another complicated problem that will take years of research and development to really make happen.  But, we’re taking the right steps.  Baby steps.  I’m sure that the politicians will stick their fat fingers into the Laser Weed Wacker pie as well, which will be even mire fun to write about!


The laser’s operation, from an article at Gizmag:

The LZH [meaning Laser Zentrum Hannover, or the University’s laser center] method is to stunt or kill the weeds in place using a laser. This isn’t a completely new approach. Scientists have been experimenting with weed-killing lasers for years, but early attempts revolved around using lasers to cut weed stems or to boil the weeds in their own juices. This wasn’t always effective and the laser needed a lot of power to get the job done. There was also the constant problem of how to tell the weeds from the crops so the right ones were zapped.

LZH took a different approach. The team, headed by Thomas Rath of the Institute of Biological Production Systems, used a low-powered CO2 laser to strategically heat the water in the weeds’ cells. Instead of slicing through the weeds or burning them, the LZH laser would only heat the weed cells enough to damage them and thus inhibit their growth. This is trickier than it sounds, because if too little power is used, it can turn the laser into a high-tech sunlamp that actually promotes weed growth. As Christian Marx, Research Fellow in the Department of Biosystems and Horticultural Engineering explains, “it has been shown that lasers operating with too little energy are more favorable to weed growth, causing the exact opposite of what we want.”

According to LZH, the team succeeded in locating the weeds’ growth centers and inhibiting them as well as adapting the method to different plants and plant heights. But the real hurdle was in finding a way to make the weed-killing laser practical by making sure it killed only the weeds and not the crops.

There you have it, folks.  A weed killer drone that kills plants with lasers.  A grand idea — let’s see where this one goes in the future!  I’m excited to see the progress!

WHY Does Behind The Scenes STILL Have Holiday Cards?!

So, for those of you who don’t know, there is a pretty cool organization called BTS, or Behind the Scenes.  They’re always at the tradeshows, and the people in their booth are great folk.  BTS is an initiative of the ESTA Foundation, aiming to help out industry folks when they’re down and out.  BTS does a good thing, and has helped some very, very talented people get back on their feet after falling from the sky because of illness or injury.

UPDATE:  Something TOTALLY crazy, I realized today that I know a BTS recipient!!!  “Heavy Metal Mary,” as she is called, is a friend of a friend.

Right now, BTS is trying to get all of their Holiday cards ordered up – and the deadline is SEPTEMBER 8!  They have four awesome designs, all done by people working in the biz to benefit the biz.  All of the proceeds from this Holiday card sale go to benefit Behind the Scenes recipients.  I don’t know of a better way to help than this without having eleventy trillion dollars to donate, which I don’t have.

From BTS about the cards:

The 2011 Behind the Scenes Holiday Cards were created by an impressive lineup of all-star designers—Andrew Hefter, Seth Jackson, Derek McLane, and Jim Youmans—and proceeds go to Behind the Scenes, a charity helping entertainment technology professionals who are injured or ill.

Seth Jackson has designed tours for two decades for Don Henley, Jason Mraz, Hilary Duff, Melissa Etheridge, American Idols Live, Barry Manilow, Carrie Underwood, and Toby Keith, to name a few. He’s also a two-time Parnelli Award winner, and has received the Illuminating Engineering Society’s Award of Distinction.

Derek McLane is one of today’s most sought after designers, with designs seen on Broadway in this year’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Anything Goes revivals on Broadway. His design for 33 Variations won him a Tony Award, and his Ragtime and Pajama Game revivals each earned Tony nominations.

Jim Youmans has designed award-winning scenery for Broadway and other live events, as well as for television and media environments. Some of his many designs have includedGypsy (Patti LuPone) and Swinging on a Staron Broadway, as well as Matt and Ben, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Jeffrey, and The Swan (Public Theatre) Off-Broadway, among others.

A perennial favorite, talented young photographer Andrew Hefter returns with an encore performance of his popular design from 2008 in response to requests from those who missed out on this sold-out card the first time around.

Three ordering options are offered, including personalized cards with a company logo and custom message (minimum 250 cards), card packs of 10 with a standard greeting, and electronic versions to be sent via email as a jpg, gif or pdf.

Orders will be taken until September 8, 2011 to arrive by early November. All proceeds benefit The ESTA Foundation’s Behind the Scenes program. View and order cards at the link below. For more information, please contact Kacey Coffin at +1-212-244-1421 or

Check out the card designs – very cool:


…and perhaps my favorite…

Jump on it, everybody.  Help our industry help ourselves.


Happy Birthday, Francis Robbins Upton!

Whoa!  It’s time for Mr. Culture‘s birthday – and here he comes, Mr. Culture himself, Francis Robbins Upton!  HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DUDE!

(We’re all sorry you’re dead man, we’ll have a drink in your honor.  Sorry you didn’t make it to 2011.  I bet you’d be flipping your lid.)

The title of “Culture,” as he was called by the rest of his colleagues was kind of an awesome nickname given to him because of his wealth of knowledge.  Francis Upton here was one of Thomas Edison’s Muckers – the guys who did all of the work for which Edison grabbed the credit.  Upton was the most educated of all of his Muckers, and at one point he was made President of the Muckers!  What a weird title.  From the Smithsonian:

Upton was the best educated of Edison’s Menlo Park assistants, having graduated from Bowdoin College and taken graduate work at Princeton and in Germany. He was recruited by investors who felt it couldn’t hurt to supplement Edison’s wizardry with some advanced scientific training. They were right, and Upton’s understanding of mathematics and physics was of critical assistance in the development of the light bulb, the dynamo, and other elements of Edison’s system. Nicknamed “Culture” by his colleagues, he was placed in charge of the Edison Lamp Works in 1881. In 1918, Upton became the first president of the Edison Pioneers.

A bit more about Francis from About Inventors:

Francis R. Upton was born in Peabody, Massachusetts on July 26, 1852. He studied mathematics at Bowdoin College, Princeton University, and the University of Berlin (under Hermann von Helmholtz) before joining Edison at Menlo Park in December 1878. At Menlo Park he worked as Edison’s chief scientific assistant, preparing blueprints, performing calculations, and solving mathematical problems associated with Edison’s incandescent electric lighting system. He also helped design incandescent lamps, dynamos, and the electric railway.

Following the perfection of the incandescent lamp and Edison’s consequent expansion into lamp manufacture, Upton became general manager of the Edison Lamp Co. in Menlo Park and later in Harrison, New Jersey. There he combined his managerial duties with experimental work on lamp improvements.

Upton traveled to Europe in 1886 to inspect Edison’s financially-troubled electric lighting companies. While there, he examined a transformer used in alternating current electrical delivery systems and advised Edison to purchase the American rights. Edison did so, but later allowed his option to lapse, preferring the direct current delivery system. During the 1880s Upton also served on the board of the Edison General Electric Co.

He left the Edison Lamp Works in 1894 but returned to Edison’s employ in 1898 as an efficiency engineer at the New Jersey & Pennsylvania Concentrating Works. Upton’s talent for selling sand (a by-product of ore-milling) to cement manufacturers helped persuade Edison to enter the cement business himself. Following the collapse of the ore-milling venture, Upton joined the Edison Portland Cement Co., eventually serving as company representative for northern New Jersey. He left that position in 1911, continuing to sell brick and crushed sand independently.

Upton married twice and had three children by each wife. He served as first president of the Edison Pioneers (1918). He later retired to California, but died in Orange, New Jersey, March 10, 1921.

Something that is not well publicized for some reason was Upton’s writing for journals like Scientific American and Scribner’s Monthly.  Upton wrote about Edison’s invention of electric light, and apparently he really impressed Edison, because Edison wrote a note to Scribner’s Monthly saying that Upton was the authority on the subject:

Ah, good times.  Happy Birthday, Francis Robbins Upton!

Thanks Rutgers, EJCov, and the University of St. Andrews Math and Stats!


My Rockstars. Who are YOUR Rockstars?

This is perhaps one of my favorite times of year.

This is a time where students and student designers (especially LIGHTING designers) are getting back into the swing of things in the University environment, and concepts are grabbing hold.  Brains are being developed.  The next generation of rockstar lighting people are being trained.  This is all very exciting to me.

Something that I find relatively disturbing is the answer to the following question that I have asked many high school and college age people:

Who do you look up to in lighting?  Who are your “rockstars?”

I have always been a nerd on the Nth degree – I looked up to people like Westinghouse and Edison, Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer.  Yeah, I am a nerd.  Nerd is the new “passionate.”  But when you look at the things that Michael Faraday, Georg Ohm, Alessandro Volta, Francis Robbins Upton, and people like them of their times accomplished and discovered, it’s hard to call people like Brittany Spears and Taylor Swift “rockstars.”

At least to me.

The people who are getting into light and lighting now are the people who are going to lead the technological development of it tomorrow.  It’s so important to me that we not forget the work that the rockstars of today are doing (and STILL doing) to keep our industry progressing at a rapid, uncontrolled pace.  When politics and money get in the way of technological process, it still, to this day, blows my mind.  Our world LIGHT problems, like creating sustainable energy, figuring out how to better utilize incandescent light and arc sources, integrating dichroic glass into the world outside of entertainment, and the like are not problems solvable by policy and politics.  These are technological issues.  We need more technically interested people, and not policy makers to solve the issues.  Jacques Fresco, a social designer and engineer, said that we don’t need more law, we need more technological solutions.  If you’re driving down the road drunk, your car needs some sort of a system that feels the car oscillate and brings it to the side of the road to a stop – not a law that people constantly ignore, which causes death and destruction.

I found an article a while ago that sparked my feelings on this subject – Wired Magazine had an article about how the lack of nerds and geeks in our midst from the emerging young population is a national security risk.  Whereas you all know how I feel about military uses of light, I tend to agree with this assessment of the shortage of people passionate about their future.  Has the emerging population on average lost sight of the drive associated with work ethic?  Is studying for a math exam less important nowadays than seeing what’s up on Facebook?

It certainly seems like it, doesn’t it.

I had the absolute pleasure over the Memorial Day weekend to meet a man named John Covington while I was hanging out with Rick Hutton from InLight Gobos over that weekend.  John Covington is a guy who, along with Rick, was one of the initial ShowCo/Vari*Lite people from back in the 70’s and 80’s who developed a lot of the things we use in the lighting industry today, as well as, you know, the FIRST MOVING LIGHTS.  John Covington works for PRG now – he’s the guru of all things analog.

I am in Nerd Heaven when I have those excellent conversations with Rick and John about things like lasers, laser ablation (which Rick was the first to do for gobos in our industry, which is why his gobos are so damned good), the first digital programmable ballast and power supply (which, by the way, JOHN was the first to invent, like two decades ago), and other amazing technological discussions.  Hearing stories about the development of the VL1 and VL2 series, the VL5, laser gobo etching, and all that kind of stuff really, really makes me excited to be in this industry.

I look up to people all over the industries, because our industries are full of very rich and interesting history.  You also learn a thing or two when you observe a master at work.  Hell, I learned more about dance lighting design from Steve Shelley than I ever would have on my own.  I also learned ridiculous amounts of things from Richard Cadena, who is just a smart fella full of excellent insight and information.  I learned how to program a Hog from Benny Kirkham, who is one of the coolest cats I’ve ever met.  The first programming book I ever read?  A manual on lighting programming by Brad Schiller.  I saw several Metallica shows as well – products of Brad Schiller’s creativity and prowess behind the desk.  I learned from Richard Belliveau as well – I have spent more time inside of Intellabeams, Studio Spots, and Studio Colors studying the systems and figuring out what made them tick than I’d like to remember!

(Brad also helps me become more diverse when I write boring stories and post things that don’t necessarily interest the common good – thank you Brad!)

The list goes on and on.  What is important is that each and every one of these people who I look up to as a lighting professional are out there doing what they do because they love it.

You have to have heroes – rockstars – people you look up to, people that you learn from, people that you value.  When you realize that your career is more than just a job, I think that you are able to then figure out who really are your rockstars.  Most of them are very humble, and have done what they have done in the industry because, well, it is their career.  They don’t think they’re better than anyone, and they don’t have something to prove – they love their work.  Dedication to furthering a career is something that no one can give you.  You either have it or not.  I highly encourage you to find out about the people who have done the developing of your particular industry and get to know them.  You’re going to realize that you all have the same questions – and perhaps they have an answer or guidance that you would have never before realized.

If this is your industry, have respect – work hard at it.  Become a nerd about it.  It’s the only way to become the best.  The people who are currently the best want you to be the best, too.

I want to say thank you to the industry, and all of the people associated with the industry who get it.  Thank you for doing what you do, and being so damned great at it.

Cat West – Interview on iSquint – Where is the Industry Heading?

Okay, I love these interviews.  I did one back in mid 2009 with iSquint, and now he’s got an interview posted with our favorite sassy programmer/LD, Cat West.  Don’t waste a second, check it out!

Cat’s actually a ninja – and she WILL kick your butt with her throwing stars made of complex algorithms.

Yeah.  I went there.

LDI 2008 – Vegas, October 20-26, 2008


LDI 2008 is coming up fast – October 20-26, 2008 in Vegas. Have you registered? Who’s going? Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to make it this year, but if you’re a lighting professional, it is THE conference to hit! Count me in for 2009!

Check out the registration, sign up and get yourself to Vegas.  All of the major manufacturers of entertainment lighting products and control are there, and the swag is fantastic!