AgCast: Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) use in crops

At the 2017 China International Agricultural Trade Fair, the largest industry trade show in that nation with almost 600,000 attendees, a company president had a room of thousands rapt at attention with a presentation discussing laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS, and its potential as an agronomic tool.


“All these international experts sit up and look at each other as he started talking about LIBS, and at the next coffee break, a dozen or so international experts jumped up and practically attacked two leaders of the company because they want to try this out so much. It has enormous potential,” said AG Business Consultants Principal Marc Vanacht.


So what’s it got to do with our business? In the least, it’s a step in an evolution toward technology that will change the time and resource requirements to successfully raise a crop, a change to which agrimarketers will need to be attentive in order to most effectively work with farmers and ranchers. At most, it could create a new sector of crop input products — chemical, machinery or otherwise — based on a whole new level of understanding of what’s going on in the field.


What is LIBS?


Every plant emits a specific spectrum of light. LIBS uses small pulse lasers, plasma plumes and a spectrometer to essentially measure that light spectrum, thereby identifying the specific plant species. “Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) is a simple spark spectrochemical sensor technology in which a laser beam is directed at a sample surface to create a high-temperature microplasma and a detector used to collect the spectrum of light emission and record its intensity at specific wavelengths,” according to this report. “LIBS is an emerging chemical sensor technology undergoing rapid advancement in instrumentation capability and in areas of application.”


The LIBS process yields plant species data in real time, something that has major implications if the technology is to be integrated into current agronomic systems. It could enable quick decision-making for the producer or agronomist relying on LIBS to diagnose any potential weed issues.


It’s a technology that’s been around in laboratory settings for decades (many crop researchers are familiar with it), but with commercialization for use in field environments on the horizon, it’s poised to change crop scouting and weed management in some fairly profound ways. And, it’s got implications for agribusinesses working with farmers using the technology.


What LIBS can mean to agriculture


Just like many high-tech tools, LIBS has been fairly limited in its applications to date mainly because of size and cost. Previous versions of LIBS machines were the size of a refrigerator and cost well into the tens of thousands of dollars, according to Vanacht, a long-time global ag technology expert. But that’s changing. Units are getting smaller and costs are going down, making it possible to one day leverage LIBS in crop fields. Some companies are beginning to offer handheld LIBS units. That kind of portability opens the door to applications in places like a corn field in Iowa or cotton field in the Mississippi Delta.


In a consistent, weed-free corn field, for example, that spectrum indicates only the presence of the intended corn plants. Other plants — namely weeds — will emit a different spectrum, giving the crop scout or farmer using LIBS a clear picture of the status of a crop, even if the weeds are small enough to be missed by a physical inspection of a field.


Now take it a step further and attach a LIBS system on a drone. Gone will be the days when mid-season crop scouting for weeds requires walking rows in search of an invasive pest. Fly a drone equipped with a LIBS system over a field and within a few minutes, a scan can reveal any weed pressures, enabling the producer or agronomist to quickly decide whether a herbicide treatment is necessary.


Couple LIBS drone scouting with autonomous spraying equipment and you ultimately have a weed management system that minimizes human input and enables producer and agronomists to manage crop weed pressures exponentially more efficiently, almost making the process an afterthought.


Implications for the ag marketplace and agri-marketing


When precision ag tools started advancing rapidly a decade or so ago, I was an editor at a large farm magazine. I remember having a conversation in the mid-to-late 2000s that included: “If farmers have auto-steer and guidance, they’re going to have a lot of time on their hands in the field.”

However, that time never really appeared since other tasks absorbed that attention. Nobody was sitting in the cab twiddling their thumbs. Buying seed, marketing grain and managing overall farm budgets all became jobs that could now be conducted from the tractor or combine cab. Farmers evolved because of precision ag. They discovered ways they could improve their operations because of the new tools at their disposal.


Technology like LIBS can have similar effects. During the growing season, crop scouting and weed management can take up a considerable amount of time and energy. If LIBS can help drastically cut that time and energy by showing specific weed pressures with a few quick passes over a field, farmers suddenly will be able to devote their resources to other tasks. The agriculture companies and agri-marketers that successfully ride the evolutionary wave will be those who can offer products and services to help farmers best manage and use their newfound time and energy.


What’s the next step? How can farmers make the best use of their time and resources that technology like LIBS can essentially create for them? The ag companies that best answer that question and provide the most valuable product or service to accomplish it will be most successful in this next step of high-tech evolution on the farm. And, that product or service may be something that’s not yet even crossed the industry’s mind.

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