Vancouver company using pheromones, cellphones, algorithms to protect orchards, vineyards

Michael Gilbert knows which way the wind is blowing.

Gilbert’s company, SemiosBIO, is using wireless communication to change the way the world grows fruit and nuts. If they’re successful – and early indications are very positive – Canada could show the world how to build a ‘smart’ farm that automates pest control methods which haven’t changed a lot since Sumerians dusted with crops with sulphur in Mesopotamia around 4500 BC.

The company is combining chemistry, computer software and wireless networks to disrupt breeding of common agricultural pests such as codling moths – the bugs that cause worms to grow in apples.

The technology falls into the category of machine-to-machine or M2M as its known in the wireless industry, because it involves machines communicating autonomously to each other — and taking actions based on the information exchanged. BC Hydro’s smart meters fall into the same category, as will other smart devices installed in household appliances, automobiles, even factories, as the technology becomes more widely adopted.

SemiosBIO is using pheromones, a well-established alternative to pesticides, to confuse insects during their breeding stage. Then it’s adding solar-powered communications, thermometers, barometers, wind vanes and a cloud-based computing network that turns each orchard and vineyard on its system into a full-time remote weather and insect monitoring station.

Over time the company will amass a trove of information that should strip away any lingering mysteries about the behaviour of the bugs they’re trying to deter — and make SemiosBIO the curator of a proprietary and marketable databank.

They start out with the commonplace sticky traps that gauge insect populations in an orchard. Convention requires farmers to inspect the traps every few days in order to see when codling moth breeding season might be peaking. On that basis, they spray pesticide. If they don’t look at the right time, they could miss the peak. Often, farmers overspray pesticide just to ensure their crops are safe.

To improve the process and reduce dependence on pesticide, SemiosBIO mounts a tiny camera on the roof of each trap, then sets it to transmit every 10 minutes an image of what’s stuck on the floor. It’s like a closed-circuit security camera network, except it’s designed to detect bugs rather than burglars.

At present, SemiosBIO has entomologists on staff who count the insect levels in traps by examining the photos on a computer screen in the company’s office in Discovery Park on Great Northern Way in East Vancouver. In the near future the bug count will be handled by a computer program that will recognize the signs of a breeding-related population surge.

Once a surge is detected, either by a human observer or an algorithm that reads images, an order is transmitted back to the orchard where a shoebox-sized container holding a canister of pheromone is wired in. The canister emits a puff, the male moths catch wind of it and confuses it with the scent of a female moth who’s prepared to mate. The males don’t find her, the eggs she lays on the surface of an apple don’t become fertilized, and the apple is safe from a burrowing grub that never fails to invoke a reaction of disgust from someone who bites into its adopted home.

- Vancouver Sun, by Scott Simpson


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