The Weed Terminator

By Eric Buchanan, Renewable Energy Scientist

May 2020

Minnesota farmers and land managers are engaged in an annual battle to control weeds. Each year, significant amounts of herbicide, diesel fuel, labor, and money are expended to stay ahead of weed infestations. Control of weeds is critical in the production of food. Current methods of weed control using herbicides have been very effective, but may have unintentional and harmful consequences to our air, land, water, and wildlife resources. 

The WCROC is partnering with the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) to develop improved methods using robots to control weeds on agricultural lands. This effort is an extension of a current collaboration with CSE and Toro to develop an autonomous mower for cow pastures. The new project will focus on weed control in mid to late term row crops like corn and soybeans. The idea is to develop weeding implements that can be carried and operated on a small, robust autonomous vehicle down a single crop row. The robot will navigate through a field row by row identifying weeds and terminating them. The robot will be battery operated and will recharge via a solar powered trailer/battery bank parked near the field. 

There are a lot of unique challenges to this project from navigating in a field and identifying weeds to targeting and removing weeds without damaging crops. A small commercial robot made by Rover Robotics has been purchased to test navigation sensors and programming as well as weed removal prototypes. It will be used in WCROC fields this summer to determine which ideas and methods work best. Initial weed removal prototypes will focus on mechanical weed removal so that it can be used in organic fields. 

Once the best programming methods and weed removal prototypes have been selected they will be further tested next summer on a more capable vehicle like the SAGA Robotics Thorvald.

While the challenges to this project are great, the potential benefits are also great, including:

  • Significantly reduce the use of herbicides on agricultural and natural lands across the State of Minnesota
  • Replace fossil fuel and resulting air emissions with clean energy produced locally
  • Protect water resources by preventing surface and ground water contamination with herbicides
  • Reduce the impact of herbicide on wildlife, desired native plant species, and the evolution of herbicide tolerant ‘super’ weeds
  • Develop new time-saving tools for farmers as well as natural lands managers to control weeds
  • Advance the rapidly growing field of robotics within the State

In the movie, “The Terminator”, a robot from the future arrives in the present to eliminate threats to its existence. Hopefully, next summer you will be able to see a friendlier robot from the future, the Weed Terminator, working in a WCROC corn field eliminating threats to organic corn plants. Stay tuned!