WIMAUMA, Fla. — Researchers may have found a way to protect Florida strawberries fields from mildew with ultraviolet light. 

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

For several months, one night a week, students test drive the robot and document how the ultraviolet light eliminates mildew from strawberry fields on the Wimauma, Fla. Campus.

“Diseases are a serious problem on strawberries,” said Dr. Jack Rechcigl, center director and professor at UF-IFAS. “To eliminate having to use chemicals to control mildews like downy mildew and powdery mildew, ultraviolet light will kill that disease.”  

Plants with downy mildew will have yellow speckles on their leaves and may have gray fuzz underneath, according to UF-IFAS. 

Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that attacks a variety of plants, fruits and vegetables; including, strawberries, squash and tomatoes. Plants with powdery mildew will have spots or patches of white powder on their leaves. According to UF-IFAS, the white spots usually appear toward the end of the growing season when nights are cooler, and there is a minimal amount of rain and high humidity.

For ultraviolet light treatment to work efficiently, Thorvald is programmed to make its rounds on the strawberry field at night. The robot automatically drives across the field and exposes all the strawberry plants to ultraviolet light for a few seconds. 

Researchers are hoping the process will eliminate or limit the use of pesticides.

“It saves money for the growers because you don’t need as many chemicals,” said Dr. Rechcigl explaining it will also make the strawberries safer for consumers and the environment. 

Ultraviolet light for hemp and hops

In March 2019, UF-IFAS’ Hemp Pilot Project received import and planting permits from the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Researchers will test cropping systems and several varieties of hemp. Part of the process is also to keep hemp crops free of mildew. 

“You can’t use chemicals on hemp production if you’re going to grow it for CBD oil for pain control,” Dr. Rechcigl explained. “The only solution is to use this technology where you use ultraviolet light to control the disease and you have no chemicals going out.”

UF-IFAS researchers also have plans to test Thorvald’s ultraviolet lights on its 1-acre field of hops in Wimauma, Fla

“Even for hops that we’re growing here for beer we have the same disease problems there and ultraviolet light will control that too,” Dr. Rechcigl noted.

Currently, Thorvald is only being tested at universities and research institutions. 

Saga Robotics spokesman, Tale Hagelsteen, said in an email that the startup expects to make the autonomous robot available for commercial use sometime within the year. Hagelsteen said strawberry farmers will be able to purchase UV-treatment as an hourly service.

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