Experts at two UK universities are starting a new project to develop a photonic ‘nose’ to monitor crops for pest infestations and plant disease.

Aston University in Birmingham is collaborating with Harper Adams University to research and develop technology using light to monitor crop health.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, annually, up to 40% of global crop production is lost to pests. Every year plant diseases are said to cost the global economy over $220 billion, and invasive insects at least $70 billion.

This research will use strawberries to test the new technology. The fruit is vulnerable to potato aphid which has the potential to wipe out an annual harvest.

With increasing pressure to find alternatives to pesticides due to environmental and health concerns, one method is to use integrated pest management (IPM) to create an early warning system. It monitors plants for build-up of insects and diseases rather than spraying plants with chemicals, but there are concerns about its cost and reliability.

The new project uses recent developments in photonics technology that can analyse low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by plants, which indicate their health. This is coupled with machine learning hardware which makes it practical to use artificial intelligence in commercial settings.

Professor David Webb of Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (AIPT) said that better invertebrate pest and plant disease monitoring technologies will significantly help cut crop losses.

“However, most electronic noses use electrochemical sensors, which suffer from sensitivity issues, sensor drift or ageing effects and lack specificity,” he said.

“We intend to address this by building on the fast moving technology of photonics – the science of light – while collaborating with scientists in other disciplines.”

The 12-month project is to receive £200,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council. The grant is the maximum amount given from their molecules to landscapes project, which funds interdisciplinary solutions to ‘real world’ challenges.

Pressure on ag sector

Dr. Joe Roberts from Harper Adams University said that with the projected increase in the global population there is increasing pressure on the agricultural sector to achieve higher crop yields.

“Reducing crop losses within existing production systems will improve food security without increasing resource use,” he said.

“We intend to establish an interdisciplinary community of agricultural science, optical sensing and machine learning experts to develop novel plant health monitoring platforms that enhance agricultural production through localised pest and disease monitoring to detect hotspots.”

Recently, Agriland reported how a potential link between Parkinson’s Disease and pesticide exposure on Irish farms is being investigated by a team at University College Cork in conjunction with Cork Parkinsons Association, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and Teagasc.

The project is under ethical review at UCC and it is planned to start recruiting over the summer months to the project as well as representing the study at the National Ploughing Championships in September.