Apr 4, 2023
FlightSensor provides pest surveillance

New digital insect surveillance technology could help growers better detect and manage pests.

For decades, limited pest monitoring options have been available to growers prior to taking corrective action. Sticky traps are a time-consuming and inaccurate method while broadcast sprays of selected pesticides and insecticides can be inconsistent and can also harm beneficial bugs that pollinate more than 70% of the global crop supply, said Leslie Hickle, CEO and co-founder of FarmSense Inc.

Farmsense’s FlightSensor sends insect signals and environmental information from fields to the cloud, allowing growers to remotely monitor insect pressure. Photo: FarmSense

The FlightSensor from the Riverside, California, ag tech start-up monitors insects through AI and machine learning algorithms. FlightSensor is designed to remove uncertainty from pest management, Hickle said. The technology is being studied in cruciferous vegetables, stone fruit, winegrapes and nuts.

The sensor sends insect signals and environmental information from fields to the cloud. The algorithm classifies and counts insects before sharing data to a grower’s dashboard, allowing mobile crop status viewing.

Sticky business

“FarmSense’s FlightSensor is a novel technology not dependent on sticky cards, which are the bane of entomologists,” Hickle said. “We had developed so many economic models for predicting pest impact, but no way of populating them with in-field real-time data.

“Sticky cards were only checked every 7 to 10 days because they were just too labor intensive,” she said. “We could now understand what was happening in the field and each pest had a unique fingerprint, so we could monitor multiple pests and the time they were active.”

Though FlightSensor can be customized for nearly any crop, FarmSense’s initial focus was on nut farming. This year, the company plans to send 1,000 sensors to field trials that target navel orangeworm in nut crops, the pest that FarmSense has collected the most data. 

This year, initial field research is being arranged for cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and similar green leaf vegetables. While FarmSense hasn’t conducted much research in vegetable crops, it’s targeting diamondback moths in cruciferous crops, Hickle said.

The company is running research projects in California and the Pacific Northwest on pests affecting pome and stone fruit, including peach twig borer, oblique-banded leafroller, oriental fruit moth and codling moth, as well as grapeleaf skeletonizer, which attacks vineyards. 

“The FlightSensor’s strengths are currently designed around medium-sized moths which have a pheromone lure,” said Tracy Ellis, a FarmSense entomologist. “The sensor technology has many applications, however.”  

Digital lure

An electronic optical curtain inside FlightSensor’s plastic housing lures insects and triggers signals. Different species are assigned unique fingerprints. Non-invasive sensors record temperature and humidity, the main factors in pest population development. The data logging also allows for building of historical records.   

“Farmers can use this information to determine if they are dealing with beneficial or invasive species and take strategic action before lasting damage is done to crops,” Hickle said. “The result is better crop yield, lower pesticide use, reduced environmental damage and less risk of insect resistance.” 

FarmSense and its insect monitoring technology originated from University of California-Riverside computer scientists Shailendra Singh, FarmSense’s chief technology officer, and Eamonn Keogh, a data mining expert who pioneered computational entomology. They met entomologist Hickle and founded the company.

As a startup, FarmSense is experiencing some challenges in receiving investors.

“There’s a discrepancy in valuing pest control because it’s been traditionally a very small input cost to the grower compared to all the other costs to produce a crop,” Hickle said. “Yet, if you don’t treat, you can lose the crop. Timing isn’t as important with broad spectrum pesticides, so many of the sprays are still scheduled and used as insurance. We understand that it will be a few years before our models eliminate the risk of using less toxic and more targeted treatments.”  

Hickle said data is providing the next evolution in agriculture.

“It’s the next age: Agrarian, Industrial, Information,” she said.

— Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor

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