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Drone AI takes on new field tasks

Fixed-wing drone uses artificial intelligence to identify and treat individual weeds.

WESTERN PRODUCER — Artificial intelligence developed for spray drone modified to monitor fields for weeds, disease or even insect infestations

Regina-based Precision AI is having a great year.

Last summer, during the Ag In Motion outdoor farm show held near Saskatoon, the company launched its autonomous, fixed-wing drone that uses artificial intelligence to identify and treat individual weeds within a broad-acre-crop canopy.

In March, it won numerous international awards for the drone, including the Cooperative Innovation Challenge at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit held in San Francisco. As well, it’s a finalist in BloombergNEF’s 2023 Pioneers Award.

It’s also one of eight companies picked by John Deere for its 2023 Startup Collaborator program.

Daniel McCann, chief executive officer of Precision AI, said the World Agri-Tech Summit was competitive with more than 100 applicants for the award.

“I think that people are starting to recognize that artificial intelligence coming onto the farm and it has the ability to be a real game changer and drive value in ways that you can’t really do any other way,” McCann said.

There is no formal application process for Deere’s Startup Collaborator program. The company chooses the startups it wants to work with.

Precision AI’s application drone is a green-on-green system, in that it can target individual weeds within a crop canopy.

Deere has one of the most advanced green-on-green systems available, See and Spray. McCann said the two systems complement each other.

“You might do a green-on-green spray of your field and then later on if there’s any places you couldn’t get your sprayer into because you’ve had water in low-lying areas, you can always go and send the drone to clean up the field afterwards,” he said.

“We’re very excited to be working with them (Deere). I’ve been really impressed with the amount of time and attention they give to you in the Startup Collaborator program. They really seem to want to help you succeed.”

Precision AI also expanded its offering this winter with the release of a survey system that uses the AI and sensing system developed for its spray drone.

The survey system uses the Precision AI payload, including camera and AI that can be installed on consumer drones, which McCann said will reduce the barriers to adoption of the company’s technology.

“You can put that on really any drone you’ve got, and that becomes an interesting new way of doing things. You can build AI models for all sorts of different types of things beyond just spraying,” McCann said.

“You could use it to detect cutworm or flea beetle infestations that you might want to treat in a totally different way. So, we see that as becoming a product line for us as well.”

Precision AI will build the survey system drones for the foreseeable future, because building the system is more complicated than just installing camera and processor.

However, McCann said that as the company’s technology matures, a goal is to license the tech to other companies.

The survey system is expected to be launched this summer, and the company will continue to build its AI models for various farm tasks.

“AI models take time to build so it depends on what you want to do, because now this is more of a general-purpose farm AI platform that you can use for a whole pile of different things,” McCann said.

“We’ve got weed mapping models ready to go today, but there might be a bunch of other use cases other people want that we’ll have to work with them to try to build into the product.”

McCann said AI on farms promises to be a game changer that will allow plant level management, even on a broad-acre scale.

For instance, a model the company is working on for its survey system could provide growers an early alert for when herbicide-resistant weeds start to show up.

“You can do a field level survey, a pre-application field level survey, apply a herbicide and then just do another survey at the plant level, let’s say 10 days later,” McCann said.

“If you’re not seeing those plants start to die, even before they get big, you have an early warning you can act on. You can say ‘maybe I’ve got a herbicide-resistance problem and I should get out there with a different herbicide before they get too big.”

Precision AI is looking for requests for use cases from farmers and the research community so it can start building AI models to perform these tasks.

McCann said the Precision AI spray drone also has a fit in combating herbicide-resistant weeds, because it can target individual weeds with either non-selective herbicides, or selective herbicides at a high rate.

“Farmers we’ve spoken to have said that if they get a tiny amount of crop loss in that area by hitting something with a heavy dose in that one spot where there’s resistant weeds, they will get a tiny bit of crop loss. But they are willing to make that investment this year to deal with herbicide resistance, so that that stuff’s gone for all subsequent years,” McCann said.

The Precision AI spray drone is two metres long and with a wingspan of seven metres.

It weighs 55 kilograms empty, has a 20-litre application tank and 18 spray nozzles spaced 25 centimetres apart along its wings.

The cameras have a resolution of 0.5 millimetres from operating height.

A gasoline generator powers the electric propellers and supports up to two hours of flight time.

The drone was designed to treat individual weeds while travelling 70 kilometres per hour at a height of eight to 10 feet.

It takes off vertically like a quad-copter drone, then the back propellers shift 90 degrees to push it in a forward direction like a plane while the front propellers turn off.

McCann said the wings provide lift, and there is less concern over spray drift compared to quad copters that can blow herbicides in less predictable ways.

This winter, Precision AI tested the spraying system in Maricopa, Arizona, and it will return to its testing program in this spring in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.

In Canada, the company is developing its systems for canola, wheat, barley, oats, peas, lentils, chickpeas and flax.

It is also working on corn and soybean crops in Iowa and Illinois.

There are no crop protection products typically used for broad-acre production in Canada that have drone application on their label.

However, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency issues research authorizations that permit limited use of a pesticide.

A working group has been established in Canada to help update and establish rules for drone applications of crop protection products, which included participants from the PMRA, Transport Canada, the academic community, agrochemical companies and representatives from the drone industry.

McCann said growers interested in using company’s survey system on their farm this summer should contact Precision AI.

The spray system is slated to be sold for the 2024 growing season.

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