Lasers for Agriculture and Poultry Farming

Robot swarm in use

Many consumers would like farming to be more environmentally and animal-friendly. Lasers and optical processes could turn out to be key technologies in this area.

Every year in Germany alone, 45 million male chickens die in the shredder because it is not worthwhile rearing them. Lasers and optical processes could put an end to this mass killing. Since 2017, Cologne-based SELEGGT GmbH in Germany has been delivering eggs from hens whose gender was already determined in the egg. To do this, after the eggs have been incubating for nine days, a laser burns a tiny hole in the shell from which a small drop of allantois fluid is taken. If patented markers detect female hormones, the egg is returned to the incubator for another twelve days. Thanks to this gender determination, only hens are hatched, while male and unfertilized eggs are removed from the incubation process at an early stage and are processed into animal feed.

Preventing chicken death with artificial intelligence and NIR-Raman spectroscopy

Scientists at the Technical University of Munich are working on a purely optical method that does not require the egg to be opened and that should provide reliable results much earlier. A team led by professors Benjamin Schusser and Axel Haase analyzes the eggs with magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) before they are placed in the incubator. Based on the MRT data, deep learning algorithms recognize whether the eggs are fertilized. If not, they can be sorted out—as they are not incubated—and be used as food. Gender determination with MRT is also feasible, but, according to the scientists, still needs better image evaluation algorithms before the process will be ready for the market.

Recently, scientists at the Technical University of Dresden Medical School and the Clinic for Birds and Reptiles at the University of Leipzig reported a breakthrough. They are working on a process for gender determination using NIR-Raman spectroscopy. In the past, a laser had to cut a roughly ten-millimeter hole in the egg, which had to be closed again after the diagnosis. But now the scientists are also able to determine the gender without damaging the egg-shell: After three days of incubation, a blood vessel system forms in the egg that reflects light and enables the gender to be determined based on its hemoglobin spectrum. According to the scientists, a reliable result can be obtained within seconds even with inexpensive spectrometers. With regard to the 100 million eggs to be tested each year in Germany, costs and time are very important.

Lasers instead of poison for weed control

Scientists at the Laser Center in Hanover (LZH) are currently using a technology that should reduce the enormous amount of plant toxins in use. Lasers will weaken weeds to the extent that they are no longer in competition with crops. In the “Non-chemical weed control with laser radiation in plant production“ (NUBELA) project, the LZH, together with IPG Laser GmbH and LASER on demand GmbH, are developing a robust module designed for agricultural purposes that distinguishes weeds from crops, using an imaging process, and weakens them in their growth center with the help of short, high-energy laser pulses. As a market launch scenario, the scientists imagine use in the cultivation of high-quality vegetables, where their lasers will zero in only on weeds directly next to the plants.

If the weeds are shrunk by laser at an early stage, there is more chance that the crops will overcome the weeds. For effective, poison-free weed control, the scientists imagine that in the future laser systems mounted on robots or drones will circle the fields and destroy weeds that they detect optically in the four-leaf stage. Although it might sound like science fiction, it is a very concrete research subject, for example, in the EU funding program ECHORD++ Mars.