Future of spraying technology depends on legislation; to what extent can it be unmanned?

Photo: John Deere
Photo: John Deere

Where is the journey going with spraying technology; is the increasing pressure on chemistry the beginning of the end? Jørgen Audenaert, spraying technology expert at John Deere, shares his insights.

For almost 25 years already, Jørgen Audenaert has been working as a spraying technology expert for leading agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere. At the company’s European head office, he has been contributing to technological breakthroughs for years. He expects that data collection, artificial intelligence, sensor technology and pulsating nozzles can advance spraying technology even further, “But regulations are decisive.”

Spraying technology is not an ordinary specialisation

Under Audenaert’s leadership, a completely new range of sprayers was developed and launched on the European market. After a few years, he started working at John Deere’s European headquarters in Mannheim, Germany. “For John Deere, I have been working in the “large arable farming segment” as well as the contractor segment in recent years. After a major organisational change, I now focus on complete small grain production systems (arable farming),” he says.

His job titles changed from time to time but spraying technology and Precision Ag has been Audenaert’s specialty throughout his career. “In that respect, it is a special job, and one for which I also have to do a lot of travelling. I drive across the Netherlands to Mannheim, but sometimes also to Kaiserslautern or Zweibrucken – and I regularly visit the John Deere development centers in the US.”

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Under Audenaert’s leadership, a completely new range of sprayers was developed and launched on the European market. - Photo: John Deere

Under Audenaert’s leadership, a completely new range of sprayers was developed and launched on the European market. – Photo: John Deere

Different trends per country

When Audenaert started working in the early nineties, the technology behind spraying machines was very different, he explains. “Back then, the focus was on increasing capacity. Farmers switched from mounted to trailed sprayers. Scaling up is still an important theme to keep in mind, but in Western Europe, we are increasingly looking at increasing precision and facilitating process automation, including filling, cleaning, and reducing the environmental impact.”

Surprisingly enough, trends differ from country to country in the world of spraying technology, Audenaert says. “In the Netherlands, for example, you see a lot of ultra wide spraybooms, whereas in Germany you especially see very large spray tanks. In terms of high spraying speeds, France leads the market, and in England, the focus lies on spraying low volumes. Universally however, automation with spray computers and electronics has resulted in an enormous development.”

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Spraying technology differs widely from country to country. In the Netherlands, wide spraybooms dominate the field, and in Germany, large spray tanks are more prevalent. - Photo: John Deere

Spraying technology differs widely from country to country. In the Netherlands, wide spraybooms dominate the field, and in Germany, large spray tanks are more prevalent. – Photo: John Deere

GPS may have been the biggest breakthrough

Automation has developed so quickly that some logical “intermediate steps”, such as the spraying monitors or steering aids for manual guidance, have more or less been skipped over. Audenaert noticed that in just a few years’ time, more and more processes were automatised: automatic guidance systems, automatic section control, exact filling systems, automatic cleaning and flushing systems, automatic boom height adjustment and stability control systems. Most of those things are now standard features for machines.

“The introduction of GPS (now GNSS) may very well have been the biggest breakthrough I’ve witnessed. This made it possible to work on site-specific location.”

For arable farmers, possibilities arose to close off boom sections or to control individual nozzles when spraying. Audenaert continues: “We are now in a phase of development in which crop protection is becoming increasingly selective and targeted. The focus is on precise distribution, dosage and plant coverage – all optimally geared to the site-specific needs in the plot, up to plant level in the future.”

Legislation as an incentive for innovation

According to Audenaert, multiple factors contribute to this trend. “The requirements for the use of crop protection products in the Netherlands (and other EU markets) are increasing sharply, incentivised by legislation, buyers, and public opinion. The Dutch society sets these requirements, but the farmers themselves also have a great interest in them. Fewer chemicals reduce costs and yield potential can be increased through less crop growth inhibition and more effective control.”

In the past, the development of spraying technology was mainly about increasing the spraying capacity; now it is all about spraying much more precisely, according to Audenaert.

Therefore, stricter regulations in the use of resources are an important driver for innovation, but as far as Audenaert is concerned, policymakers should be less unilateral. “The grower’s interest must never be forgotten, particularly as far as drift reduction and the optimal leaf coverage and effectiveness of crop protection are concerned. In my opinion, these matters are not always properly balanced.”

Current developments in spraying technologies

Currently, pulsating nozzles are the technological “cream of the cake”, and in some instances they can spray down to individual plant level. Could this become even more precise? Audenaert offers a mysterious smile: “Of course I cannot tell you everything about John Deere’s plans, but with our high-frequency pulsating nozzle technology, the John Deere ExactApply, we have come a long way.”

This makes it possible to, for the first time, control the dosage and the droplet size independently of each other, he explains. “With different speeds, you can set the same flow rate and vice versa, without changing the droplet size.”

This, of course, is a major breakthrough for precision agriculture. “Because this allows the dosage to be adjusted precisely over a wide application range and for every location in the field.”

How does Audenaert see the future for spraying technology, broadly speaking? “Current developments around data collection and plant sensor technology immediately come to mind, to be able to measure which treatment each plant on a plot should have with even more precision. Detecting and distinguishing weeds offers great potential for significant savings in herbicides. I do not rule out that technology will be able to perform disease recognition at a very early stage in the long run. The observation and prediction of crop growth is becoming more precise and this will bring all kinds of new opportunities.”

An end to ever wider booms

In the Netherlands, spray booms are up to 51 metres wide (or more), and Audenaert does not expect them to become even wider. “Whenever I tell non-Dutch people about the boom widths in our country, they ask me (smiling): can you unfold them?” But this development has been very useful. The number of spray tracks is thus reduced, and the yield loss is counteracted. I think that – in other countries – the average width will still increase, but the maximum width will not follow suit. The Netherlands have always been a forerunner in this regard, I think partly because of the large share of high value root crops and expensive land prices with high production costs for the crops. More fixed tramlines are also used here.”

The developments of upscaling and precision agriculture at the same time are therefore at odds with each other.

Future of spraying technology depends on regulations

According to Audenaert, the future for spraying technology largely depends on regulations. “This applies especially to the unmanned machines in crop protection. To what extent can it be unmanned? Will someone always be required to keep an eye on the machine’s vision? Currently, rules and regulations regarding the use of crop protection agents are often geared to treating an entire field, while technology allows for much more precise spraying. Legislation should take this into account.”

Deployment of drones

The question also remains whether the advantages are interesting enough compared to the current possibilities, says Audenaert. “With drones, for example, I think that scouting and collecting data is particularly interesting for farmers. If you could do everything with drones, you would not have spray marks (tramlines) and you can also spray under moist soil conditions. But some self-propelled machines now target more than 50 hectares per hour. If you ever want to do that with a drone, you have to use a whole range of drones to achieve the same results.”

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John Deere and Volocopter introduced the first large drone adapted for agricultural use at Agritechnica.2019. - Photo: John Deere

John Deere and Volocopter introduced the first large drone adapted for agricultural use at Agritechnica.2019. – Photo: John Deere

Making profits with algorithms

Algorithms can yield much more profits for growers in the future. “It is important to develop good decision support tools & algorithms, which could, for example, translate data from a biomass map to a required dose of crop protection agent. Substantiation and validation of spraying is becoming increasingly important.”

If algorithms are well developed, the government will be able to implement more suitable regulations accordingly, Audenaert expects. “For example, a substance like Reglone, used for haulm killing in potatoes, has recently been banned in the Netherlands, but if you spray based on biomass, you only need to use 40-50% of the previous dosage. If its use bad been backed up with substantial arguments, the active ingredient might have remained available.”

Are spraying machines still relevant as restrictions on chemicals keep increasing? Audenaert thinks so. “People often think less and less crop protection products are allowed, so less is sprayed. My way of thinking is precisely the opposite: if you want to implement effective crop protection with less agent, you will have to spray more often, but in smaller quantities.”

Keeping technology affordable

According to Audenaert, the “technological end goal” for spraying technology is to have each plant mapped out, provided with the ideal amount of protection. “Keeping rules and regulations in mind, of course. This is the direction we want to go in. Costs and benefits also play an important role, of course. What I have learned over the years is that innovations are often regarded with scepticism at first, said not to be worthwhile, or that “it will not get that far”, such as with automatic guidance & steering systems or individual nozzle control with GPS. And later you see that it breaks through anyway.”

But are machines that can spray with plant-level accuracy affordable for farmers? Audenaert pauses to think. “Of course, that question is always on our minds. There must always be a payback model for the customer, otherwise it has no future. Certain techniques emerge first, do not seem to break through, but only come to fruition in combination with other, new machines. Contractors also play a major

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John Deere continues to look for new techniques, such as this autonomous electric tractor. The electricity this tractor runs on comes from the electricity grid through a construction of a retracting and unwinding extension cable. - Photo: John Deere

John Deere continues to look for new techniques, such as this autonomous electric tractor. The electricity this tractor runs on comes from the electricity grid through a construction of a retracting and unwinding extension cable. – Photo: John Deere

Adoption of precision spraying technology much faster than anticipated

As far as Audenaert is concerned, the adoption of precision spraying technology is going much faster than expected. “We can see the glass as half empty, but also as half full. I remember well when I first drove with a combination of automatic section control, machine guidance and automatic boom height & stability control. At the time, when we were just entering the new millennium, that was such a huge step. Now, it is included everywhere.”

When there is a clear benefit which can be easily understood and communicated to the customer, breakthroughs will always follow, Audenaert argues. “The benefits of site-specific spraying and working with application maps have not always been immediately clear to the grower, and in the past, it was often complicated to link systems to on another, yet it is getting easier as the years go by. Once sensors which recognise crops in weeds and spray them in a targeted manner become available, I expect this to take off.”

The biggest bump in the road? As far as Audenaert is concerned, this appears to be uncertainty about crop protection regulations. “That is because growers don’t know where this is going. A farmer does not now know whether he is ready for the future with a new system.”

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The biggest bump in the road? As far as Audenaert is concerned, this appears to be uncertainty about crop protection regulations. - Photo: John Deere

The biggest bump in the road? As far as Audenaert is concerned, this appears to be uncertainty about crop protection regulations. – Photo: John Deere

International competition

According to Audenaert, despite strict regulations, the Netherlands still have a good international reputation in the world of spraying technology. “We have the knowledge, leading universities, and intensive agriculture with high crop yields. What happens here is sometimes not put into use elsewhere in the world until 5 years later.”

Audenaert does not necessarily see emerging countries such as China, where regulation is generally less of a problem, as a threat. “You always have to take a critical look at other players in the market. Previously, you looked first at other equipment manufacturers; now, you look more towards value chains as a whole. Different industry players are not working on individual solutions, but the focus is on the complete production system. So not only spray application technology to apply a product, but also the agronomic advice for crop protection around it.

Challenge for John Deere

According to Audenaert, the biggest challenge facing John Deere in the years to come is the same challenge the entire agricultural sector faces. “In the coming years, the biggest challenge lies in achieving a considerably higher food production with almost the same amount of land and at the same time in a more sustainable way. The higher yields must therefore be achieved with a more efficient use of fertilisers, crop protection agents, and water.”

Jørgen Audenaert; 25 years developing spraying technology

Audenaert grew up on an arable farm in the southwest of the Netherlands where wheat, sugar beets and potatoes are grown, among other crops. After finishing his agricultural technology degree at WUR, he started 30 years ago working for spraying machine manufacturer Douven (Horst, Netherlands) – first in the product engineering department and then as a product manager. “I have indeed been working on spraying technology right from the start,” says Audenaert. After working 6 years for Douven, the company was acquired by John Deere.

Future of spraying technology depends on legislation; to what extent can it be unmanned?


Hekkert
Geert Hekkert Chief editor of Future Farming