Combating powdery mildew with robots

Doctoral candidate Rodrigo Borba Onofre works with robotic UV equipment  for the University of Florida's Strawberry Lab near Tampa, Fla.   Photo  credit: UF-IFAS

Doctoral candidate Rodrigo Borba Onofre works with robotic UV equipment for the University of Florida's Strawberry Lab near Tampa, Fla.

Photo credit: UF-IFAS

Researchers in the USA may have found a way to protect strawberry fields from mildew with ultraviolet light.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has teamed up with the Norway-based startup, Saga Robotics, to test out the autonomous robot named Thorvald.

Thorvald quietly roams fields at night on battery power bathing plants with ultraviolet light to kill powdery mildew.

Thorvald is able to kill mildew only at night because it catches the fungus while it's napping in the dark. Research showed that mildew repairs damage from UV rays during the day, but that repair ability doesn't work at night.

"We are really just scratching the surface of how we can use light to suppress plant pathogens and pests," said David Gadoury, senior research associate at Cornell University. "Until now, the focus has been on optimizing light for plant growth, but we can trick the enemies of plants with lighting to tip the balance towards plant health."

The American strawberry industry is particularly interested in robotic farm machines because the berries are one of the most labor-intensive crops. Field workers, usually recent immigrants, still are used because machines in the past could damage the fruit. But hiring pickers has gotten more difficult.