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!