Start-up Spotlight: FarmSense
One of the biggest problems in crop production actually stems from the smallest of sources: insect pests.
“Factoring in every crop, every insect, you’re looking at about $200 billion of damage to crops each year,” says Eamonn Keogh, FarmSense cofounder and chief technology officer.
In all crops, farmers weigh the cost of broadcast spraying and getting timing and application just right to overcome insect pressure. But many current insect management practices require manual counting and recording, which often leads to inaccuracies, and takes one to two weeks to get the data.
Costs soar with this labor-intensive process and in the time between counting and receiving the information, a small insect problem can become a big insect problem.
FarmSense, founded in 2016, has built a platform to replace sticky traps with a patented in-field insect sensors system with hardware, machine learning algorithms, and predictive analytics to help certified Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) create better solutions in real-time for the farmers they serve.
How FarmSense Provides Efficiencies
The FarmSense FlightSensors are solar-powered, wireless, and depending upon the type of pest, can cover many acres with just a few devices.
“We go by university recommendations to determine the number of traps per acre,” Leslie Hickle, cofounder and chief business officer of FarmSense, explains. “Treatments are influenced by the crop’s economic threshold for when projected damage exceeds the cost of treatment at that particular stage of production. In nuts, most PCAs use them at one per 20 acres.”
In corn, one FlightSensor could be placed to monitor about 160 acres depending on the pest.
The FlightSensors attract and measure insects, collecting data like sex, species, and population count, which is sent to the cloud and can be viewed on a mobile device.
Hickle says artificial intelligence allows the FarmSense platform to discern different insect populations and create a model that takes the uncertainty out of how to treat pest problems. “For the farmer and certified pest adviser, it’s still a guess and it shouldn’t be,” Hickle says.
“We’ve talked to growers who, without these sensors, plan to spray weekly for 12 weeks, which is something they’ve done for the past decade,” Keogh says. “When we go into the field with our traps and data collection, we can identify that out of the 12 sprays, perhaps nine were wasted. We are able to pinpoint the optimal time that spraying should have occurred.”
Harnessing all of the data provided by smart sensors means farmers could reduce their pesticide use, save on input costs, and ultimately increase yield.
Real-time intervention via management practices other than pesticides can also stave off pest resistance.
“We’ve lost a lot of synthetic compounds because of resistance or environmental concerns,” Hickle says. “Our industry is developing natural products like pheromone disruptors, but they require more precise timing, and we don’t want to lose those either.”
Hickle explains that insects have very “plastic genomes” and are likely to evolve if natural products are misused. For this reason it is all the more important to preserve beneficial insects, reduce damage to the environment, and ensure the efficacy of products for invasive species. FarmSense’s technology can support integrated pest management practices and help fulfill pesticide reduction goals that may soon be regulated.
What is Next for FarmSense
FarmSense is currently focused on nut production and other high-value crops whose economic thresholds are well-defined and profit margins are strong.
However, the smart sensor technology has many potential applications, including the ability to recognize invasive species worldwide.
“We’re training our flight sensors to recognize exotic species so that when they arrive in the U.S., we’re ready for them,” Hickle says.
And the team is already working with collaborators in the Midwest to adapt their technology to common, destructive pests like corn rootworm. “With economies of scale, we will be in field crops within a few years,” Hickle comments.
In addition to providing economic efficiencies for the farmer, FarmSense is positioned to support the various commodity boards’ goals to reduce pesticide use via integrated pest management initiatives. This long-term, sustainable vision is also what drives the team and technology.
FarmSense is preparing to launch with at least 1,000 traps to the market by March 2021 and continues to commercialize throughout the year so its products will be available off-the-shelf.
Founders: Eamonn Keogh, Shailendra Singh, Leslie Hickle
Headquarters: Riverside, California
Background: FarmSense created a smart pest monitoring system that automates the process of real-time insect classification and counting in crop fields.
Funding: FarmSense has earned $7.5 million in academic research funding and has raised $1.2 million non-dilutive capital from the National Science Foundation through multiple Small Business Innovation Research awards.
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