The Ideal Sprayer (an open letter to sprayer manufacturers)

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About Tom Wolf (Nozzle_Guy)

Tom Wolf is based in Saskatoon, SK and has 32 years research experience in the spraying business. He obtained his BSA (1987) and M.Sc. (1991) in Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, and his Ph.D. (1996) in Agronomy from the Ohio State University. Tom focuses on practical advice that is research-based to improve the efficiency of producers.

See all posts by Tom Wolf (Nozzle_Guy).

Today’s sprayer has to excel at a lot of things. It has to have capacity and low weight. It has to go fast but be comfortable. It needs wide booms that stay level over complex terrain. It has to deliver the right spray volume at the right spray quality for the job. It has to be easy to fill and easy to clean. And of course, it has to be reliable, affordable, and come with dealer support.

We’ve definitely made progress in many of these areas. But the overall package still leaves lots of room for improvement and doesn’t address some issues that are of importance to applicators. Is it time for a reset?

Let’s say cost is no object. Here’s where I think the industry could go.

Focus on spray delivery

Spraying is done to protect crops. We need to do it without harming the environment while being economical with the inputs. These three tenets make up the Application Triangle, sometimes known as the 3 Es of spraying: Efficacy, Environment, Efficiency. The triangle represents the need for balance. A gain in one or two areas often requires a loss in another. That’s why there has never been a so-called “silver bullet” in spraying.

Priority 1: Only spray when and where required.  Site specific treatments and IPM have been slow to make their way to the spraying world partly because of the low cost of inputs, but also because of difficulties defining and mapping areas that require different rates or products. The machine learning revolution is changing that. Green on Brown or Green on Green sensing can do more than save inputs. They can generate maps that document the change of weed patches over time, identifying priority areas and threshold densities and flagging problems early.

Priority 2: Integrate air assist. Air carries small droplets towards the target, protecting them from displacement by travel-induced or ambient winds. Once there, air can improve target interception and retention. It has to be done right, though, as improper adjustment can result in the opposite outcome. The reason it’s high on this list is because it improves efficacy and environmental protection at a modest cost.

Priority 3: Improve droplet size control.  Nozzle design has improved, but the overall range of spray qualities that is achievable for any specific nozzle remains narrow. Sprays can be made finer or coarser with spray pressure, but this has implications for pattern uniformity. Twin Fluid nozzles currently offer the widest range of spray qualities, allowing one nozzle to do it all. We simply need greater droplet size flexibility on the spray boom.

Priority 4: Use nozzle-specific rate control.  At minimum, a sprayer needs a system that allows for individual nozzle rate control within a wide window, say 4:1. This allows consistent dosing over a wide speed range, turn compensation, or local adjustments to dose for specific (sensed) canopy conditions. By layering direct injection at the nozzle on top of this, the sprayer can change rate and volume independently. Being able to spray the right amount in the right spray quality at the right volume, where needed completes the opportunity created by pest and canopy sensing.

Create better infrastructure

The backbone of the sprayer, the frame, drivetrain, boom, tank, pump, and plumbing, are responsible for carrying and delivering the spray liquid. Poor management of these variables results in an unproductive, heavy machine.

Priority 1: Prepare booms for future.  A limiting factor in sprayer performance is boom width and stability. Consistent and low boom heights are the cornerstone of good application, ensuring uniform distribution, reducing drift potential, and improving targeting within the canopy. But perhaps as importantly, stable booms are essential for accurate optical spot spraying and any other sensing tasks that will rise in importance. Set a standard for sway, say target height plus or minus 10 cm along the width of the boom, 90% of the time. Do the same for yaw. Accommodate brackets for sensors and wiring harnesses when designing the boom fold.

Priority 2: Improve plumbing.  Poorly executed sprayer plumbing causes waste and decontamination headaches. Although rubber hoses attached to plastic fittings provide a very versatile and generic building block, they generate and hide countless niches in which pesticide mixtures or active ingredient residue can accumulate. A simplified design that incorporates more engineered stainless steel tubing, smooth directional and dimensional transitions, interior surfaces that don’t accumulate residues and generate more efficient flows – all these would improve many aspects of the spray operation. It needs to be goal oriented – i.e., zero waste in priming and cleaning, guaranteed decontaminated after a rinse cycle. Draining on the ground should not be necessary.

Priority 3: Save weight. Weight causes compaction and eats fuel. Advanced materials or techniques can save weight while preserving strength. Savings can be applied to capacity. We need to explore advanced materials and trussed or exoskeletal designs (see “Aerodynamics”).

Priority 4: Consider aerodynamics in chassis and boom design. Wind blowing past a tractor, tank or boom, or counter-rotating air from wheels creates turbulence that displaces small droplets within it, reducing uniformity. Cleaner air makes it easier to use smaller droplets, easier to implement air assist or any other drift-reducing technology. This is no small task, as air can come from any direction. But as units become larger and travel faster, this effect can’t be ignored. Monocoque designs that use aerodynamic exteriors to carry machine weight may provide an answer.

Provide quality control

Spraying can be a guessing game, hence the terms “Spray and Pray”. We don’t know the outcome for days or weeks, depending on the mode of action, and by the time the result is known, it is too late to do anything if it’s unsatisfactory. But we can do better in assuring some sort of standard.

Priority 1: Confirm pressure, flow, and patterns at nozzles. The average sprayer has one flow- and one pressure-sensor. It can confirm the flow of the entire spray boom but cannot do that at the nozzle level. PWM has helped, by inferring flow from duty cycle. But actual liquid flow, and its pressure, remain unverified at the spray tip. A visual inspection of the pattern is necessary, and this is not only impractical but also wasteful and potentially hazardous.

Priority 2: Characterize canopy. If we knew the crop canopy was dense or sparse, we could adjust the water volume or rate of the product accordingly. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) can characterize the physical structure of an object that would indicate density or porosity for which a dose (or droplet size, or air) adjustment may be necessary. This is not some future technology. The iPhone 12 Pro has it. Even RGB image processing could do something very similar.

Priority 3: Confirm coverage and drift.  Say we’ve characterized the canopy and adjusted the atomization to suit. Is it having the intended impact? We will need a way to verify that the settings of the sprayer result in the required canopy penetration and coverage, even drift, on-the-go. We would need sprayer-mounted sensors that see spray deposits or an airborne spray cloud. The verification must be fast enough to make corrections during the spray operation. This kind of quality control provides the feedback loop to the first priority, spray delivery. It creates a perfect environment for machine learning and continuous improvement.

Priority 4: Improve user interface.  The complexity of modern equipment monitors is great if you’re familiar with their features. But if you’re a new user or less comfortable with layers of screens and buttons and warning beepers, navigating the monitor can be a game stopper. Can we have beginner modes? Or a system where the monitor more actively engages with the user, asking questions or reminding a novice of key settings? The friendliness of the interface is a sleeper issue, it seems less important at first look but can over-ride many equipment features because of the power of a positive user experience.

I challenge sprayer manufacturers to conceptualize and show us the ideal sprayer they’re working towards. The perfect unit may never reach us, as this proposal is rife with technological and cost barriers. But it is nonetheless important to identify priorities and identify possible ways to meet them. As we creep towards the solution with incremental improvements, recall that its not the size of the step that matters, it’s the direction.