UK researchers making photonic ‘nose’ to monitor crops for pests

2 Aug 2022

Potato aphids. Image: Aston University

The researchers said an early warning system using photonics could be an alternative to pesticides in dealing with pests, which destroy an estimated 40pc of global crops every year.

Researchers from two UK universities aim to develop technology using light to monitor crop health and prevent pest infestations.

Aston University is collaborating with Harper Adams University on the new photonics project, which is the science and technology of light. Photonics is already utilised in many areas such as manufacturing, medical devices, telecoms and security.

Pests and diseases cause a massive impact on global crop production. It is estimated that 40pc of global crops are lost every year to these issues, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

This organisation said plant diseases cost the global economy more than $220bn a year, while invasive insects cost at least $70bn.

Crops are usually treated with pesticides to help this issue, but there’s growing pressure to find alternatives due to the environmental impact these can cause.

A photonic nose

One alternative to pesticides is to create an early warning system with the use of integrated pest management. This method involves monitoring plants for the build-up of insects and diseases.

Prof David Webb of the Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies said pest and plant disease monitoring technology can significantly cut crop losses. However, there are issues with current models.

“Most electronic noses use electrochemical sensors, which suffer from sensitivity issues, sensor drift/aging effects and lack specificity,” Webb said.

The new project will use developments in photonics that can analyse low levels of volatile organic compounds emitted by plants, which indicate their health. The researchers said this will be combined with machine learning hardware.

The research project will be testing the technology using strawberries, which are worth £350m to the UK economy but are vulnerable to potato aphids, which can wipe out an annual harvest if left unchecked.

The 12-month project is set to receive £200,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council.

Dr Joe Roberts from Harper Adams University said there is a growing pressure on the agricultural sector to achieve higher crop yields, due to the expanding global population.

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

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic