More than 4m tonnes of pesticides are used to protect the world’s crops every year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, more than 4 million tonnes of pesticides are used to protect the world’s crops every year, and by one estimate, 98% of it just bounces off the plants and seeps straight into the soil.
There are longstanding worries about the environmental impact of this approach, and growing concern about its possible health impacts on humans, too. Already some pesticides have simply been banned.
So can the agriculture sector function using less?
The answer for most farmers seems to be “no”. Pesticides are usually sprayed across an entire property with the aim of dealing with all unwanted intruders in one fell swoop. It’s an effective approach, and it’s why modern supermarket shelves are stocked with blemish-free fruits and vegetables. But there are more malicious effects too.
According to Dr Nancy Schellhorn, CEO and Co-founder of Australia-based RapidAIM, “The result of this is insecticide ends up where it shouldn’t. And so now we have very strong links with insecticides harming bees and songbirds declining, but also increasing residues in humans and problems associated with neurological development that are directly linked to insecticide.”
RapidAim’s solution is digital surveillance through a pest monitoring system which tells farmers exactly where pests are invading, in real time. If the farmers know exactly where and when the problem arises, then they won’t have to cover the entire farm in chemicals.
Early warning and detailed mapping
RapidAIM’s chunky, bright yellow monitoring devices are currently calibrated to identify and raise the alarm only for fruit flies.
In Australia, these fruit flies (not to be confused with the tiny ‘vinegar flies’ that sometimes appear near fruit bowls) are a serious agricultural pest that can infest more than 300 species of cultivated fruits and vegetables.
Adult female flies can sting the fruit and introduce bacteria, which causes the fruit to rot, and larvae damage the fruit from within as they develop. By one estimate, fruit flies cost Australian agriculture A$30 million a year.
RapidAIM’s devices have already been deployed in two separate ways to counter the problem. Farming communities are using networks of them as early warning systems. 140 are in place in the Yarra Valley, near Melbourne, to protect the region’s vineyards and orchards from fruit flies.
Individual farms are using them too, so that they can gain detailed, granular knowledge of problems that might be emerging on their properties.
“If we can start to know where and when pests arrive, either in the region, on a farm, and in an orchard, then one: we can detect the pests early and we can have a targeted response. And two: you can see whether your control is working,” Schellhorn says.
The technology relies on a sensor which works with an algorithm. Together, they can identify the unique behaviour of specific insects.
“The insects come in contact with the sensor in some way, and those behaviours are unique, and so our algorithms that sit underneath that detect and discriminate,” Schellhorn says.
So what’s unique about the way a fruit fly behaves?
“Well, now that I can’t tell you, because that’s our secret sauce,” Schellhorn says.
An off-the-shelf lure helps to attract the fruit flies, so that they get close enough to the sensor. Once identified, the pests are reported to farmers via alerts on a mobile app.
The sensor-based system uses little data or power. The batteries for each device last at least twelve months and the maintenance requirements are minimal. The technology could also have applications beyond the farm. In fact, RapidAim has had discussions with a number of governments about using the technology to monitor pests at port facilities.
The next step, Schellhorn says, is to bring solutions for other pests to market, and to provide data analytics that might allow farmers to forecast pest problems.