A Farm Equipment Special Report: What Will Agriculture Look Like in 2021?

For years the sprayer industry has had a one-tracked agenda — reducing spray drift. But sprayer research and technology is set to diverge from that track, bringing smarter, more precise application options to the table, says Ken Giles, Univ. of California-Davis professor of agricultural engineering.

"We've been diverted from innovation for a while in the spray industry as we tackled spray drift issues," he says. "In the next 10 years, the focus is going to shift from drift reduction to precision placement of chemicals. We're going to focus on targeted coverage and how consistent application can be within that targeted coverage."

The future will see bigger sprayers with a tighter resolution in precision. Instead of controlling boom sections, Giles says, systems will be able to control each individual nozzle. This will require moving more technology and electronics onto the spray boom and closer to each nozzle. Chemicals may also need to make the move to the boom to allow for variable rate and mixture applications as determined by sensors.

"As electronics become miniaturized and sensors and actuators become more robust and cheaper, we will see them in more areas on the boom and throughout the machine," Giles says. "We already have clogged nozzle sensors and there will be an increasing amount of instrumentation on the boom."

Monitoring systems and machine help applications in the next 10 years will likely include detectors that monitor the condition of pumps, the quality of the chemical mixture being applied and its uniformity. These technologies and processes are in use in other industries, such as food processing, Giles says, and are primed to make the jump to agricultural chemical application, especially on food-grade crops.

Turn Compensation

Massively sprawling boom widths have created a growing problem with under- and overapplication of chemicals during turns. The outside nozzles move significantly faster during a turn than nozzles near the sprayer body or those on the inside corner on the turn.

"The crop under the outer boom tip may get one-fifth or even one-tenth of the intended rate of application resulting in reduced control of the target insect, weed or plant disease," Giles explains. "Conversely, the inner boom may overapply chemical. It's an immediate waste of chemical and money, overapplication can stunt the crop and underapplication results in poor control and promotes resistance issues."

Increasing application speeds further compound the issue. Fortunately, GPS quality and speed is also increasing, along with nozzle flow rate control systems. Combining these two existing technologies will allow for automatic turn compensation systems. Giles expects to see these systems in the next couple of years and, in 10 years time, they will likely be a popular option for large, high-speed spray application equipment.

Diverse Real-Time Scanning

Precision placement of chemicals will come from a combination of technologies and adjustments, including real-time scanning and mapping systems such as those making headway in nitrogen application.

"There has been a dramatic shift in the accessibility of scanning technology to producers," says Raj Khosla, Colorado State Univ. professor of precision agriculture. "The quality and waveband on sensors that was only available on satellites is now available in handheld or tractor-mounted options."

Progress now will need to be made in what those sensors report to the grower.

"It requires a lot of research to develop an ability to talk to the plant with sensors and find out how it's doing. Nitrogen deficiency looks the same as insect or disease pressure to today's sensor," he says. "Going forward, we'll have access to sensors that can clearly decipher between nutritional deficiencies, insect infestations and disease infestations. In some cases, we'll even treat these on the go with the right chemical in the right spot at the right time."

Producers striving to achieve efficiency already hate making extra trips across the field, and it will be no different in the future.

"Fuel, maintenance and time is expensive. Producers will want to sense and apply in real time," Khosla says. "I picture in 10 years where there won't be a single sensor, but a suite of sensors mounted on the tractor to map, decipher and determine the right chemical or mix of chemicals that needs to be applied."

Supporting this suite of scanners will be a sprayer unlike anything seen on today's showroom floor.

"Suites of sensors will feed information to multiple booms and tanks on the sprayer to efficiently, quickly and accurately apply what is needed by the plant whether that's fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide or a combination of products," he says.

Sensors will be able to scan not only for insect, disease and nutrient deficiencies, but possibly even pinpoint what nutrient is deficient — nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, boron, zinc and so on. Dialing in weed control is on the horizon, too.

"Weed identification with scanning is a technology that looks promising. We may see it commercially available in the next 10 years," Giles says.

Fixing problems created by minimizing spray drift will be necessary to complete the picture.

"We've gone as far as we can go with large droplet sizes to mitigate drift and may have taken it to the point that we're applying too high of a chemical rate. We need to fine-tune droplet spectrum through adjuvant technologies and configure nozzles on the boom to get chemical to the areas that need it for optimum control," Giles says.

Moving forward, Giles predicts that agricultural chemicals will continue on their well-established path of added label constraints and other regulatory rules and guidelines. The advantages of some of these coming technologies, however, may work well with regulations.

"I continue to hear rumblings of requiring buffer zones for certain chemicals, but regulatory bodies are also looking at buffer zone compromises based on the application technology used," Giles says. "If a grower invests in a proven drift control system, they may be rewarded with smaller buffer zone requirements."

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