New nursery sprayer could be "game changer"

Published online: Aug 19, 2014
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BORING, Ore.—An “intelligent” sprayer that uses a laser sensor to determine where and what to spray has shown it can cut pesticide in half and greatly reduce drift.

Researchers estimate the technology can save growers $230 an acre annually on chemicals alone.

Robin Rosetta, an integrated pest management specialist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service, said the technology is a “game changer” for producers. Previous research has tweaked pesticides or practices to make them less harmful, “But this is every swath, every crop, every pest,” Rosetta said.

The sprayer’s laser measures plant height, width and depth in a 270 degree arc and relays the information to a computer mounted in the tractor cab. The computer communicates individually with 40 rapid-fire spray nozzles, turning them on to hit foliage and off at gaps in and between plants.

“The huge reduction in volume is achieved because you’re not spraying empty spaces,” Rosetta said.

Five prototypes are involved in trials this summer: One each in Oregon and Tennessee and three in Ohio, where a USDA Agricultural Research Service team has its headquarters. Although the trials are taking place first at nurseries, researchers believe the technology can be used in orchards, vineyards, berry fields and with other crops.

The ARS team, headed by agricultural engineer Heping Zhu, has been working since 2011 with researchers from Oregon State University, Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee.

During a demonstration Aug. 14 at Hans Nelson and Sons Nursery in Boring, Ore., Zhu said the sprayers have reduced pesticide volume by up to 60 percent, ground drip by 80 percent and air drift by 90 percent. So far, there’s been no reduction in the efficacy of pest control.

“This sprayer not only reduces pesticide use but is friendly to the environment,” Zhu said.

Ohio State Extension researcher Randy Zondag said the technology is a great improvement over traditional thinking of “The more you put on, the better coverage you got.”

He praised Zhu’s work, which included developing a program to analyze spray patterns by reading liquid-sensitive cards that are placed in crop rows.

“In the next 10 years, this gentleman is going to change how we look at spraying,” he said.

But Zondag said the sprayer may not be commercially available for five to seven years. In the meantime, producers can achieve some savings by maintaining their existing equipment and changing out inefficient nozzles.

Zhu said the current prototypes cost $21,000 to build, just for components such as the laser, pump, tank and fan. The cost would come down if a manufacturer began building them, and the research team is looking for an industrial partner, he said. Oregon’s GK Machine, which designs and builds agricultural equipment, has expressed interest in building the sprayer, researchers said.

Although the technology is promising, adoption is complicated by the competing interests of growers, regulating agencies, chemical companies that don’t want to lose sales and environmentalists who oppose pesticide use at any level.

“Spray application is one of the most complicated processes in crop production” because of those competing interests, Zhu said.

Modified versions of the sprayer may be part of the adoption solution. Sam Doane, production horticulturist at the nearby J. Frank Schmidt & Son nursery, said a hybrid model will be delivered to the company for testing in October. He essentially asked for an analog version of the sprayer, in which the operator will control the settings rather than a laser. Doane said it would be far cheaper and his goal is that it would be “80 percent as good as the intelligent sprayer.”