How these students are developing an app to detect crop disease

27 Sep 2019

John McElhone and Micheál McLaughlin. Image: TechWatch

CropSafe is one of 12 finalists in the upcoming Invent 2019 competition. TechWatch’s Emily McDaid spoke to founders Micheál McLaughlin and John McElhone to find out more.

Two friends invented an AI and satellite-based farming solution, CropSafe, while they were still at St Mary’s Grammar School in Magherafelt.

“We both come from farming backgrounds,” said Micheál McLaughlin, speaking about himself and his co-founder John McElhone.

“We have witnessed first-hand what the effects of crop diseases are. My grandad raises cows and wheat on his farm. We completed research on the impact of diseases in crops, and learned that £365bn is lost globally each year.

“I’ve always loved messing around with technology and trying to build things. I started going to hackathons with John about three years ago. The one sponsored by Code4Good was focused on satellite imagery, so that’s how we got started.”

‘Some farmers aren’t able to partake in frequent surveying because of the large cost involved. We want to bring this capability to any farmer no matter how small’

From there, McLaughlin and McElhone began to sweep up hackathon awards and coveted places on business accelerators, one after the other. Between them, they’ve won AngelHack in Dublin, and attended an accelerator based in San Francisco and an accelerator at Dogpatch Labs.

McElhone has earned a place teaching coding to younger students at Stanford University through the iDTech summer camp programme. He’s also starting a General Assembly course in data science in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile McLaughlin’s course in software engineering at Ulster University will keep him here. For the time being, at least.

“In five years, I’d love to build a team around CropSafe as it grows and expands into more crop diseases, moving the business forward. Probably living between Belfast, Dublin and Santa Monica,” he says.

Fresh perspective

Were they intimidated, being the only school students among experienced crowds of software engineers at hackathons?

“Not really, because I felt like we had a fresh perspective,” McLaughlin says. “Everyone was so friendly and supportive, maybe because we were young.”

McElhone adds: “At our first hackathon we were the youngest people by about 10 years. The community in Belfast is brilliant, everyone is there to help you out.”

I ask McLaughlin what his interests are, outside of farming. “I like to skateboard with my dog, play some golf and do a bit of web design – mostly trying to figure stuff out.”

McElhone does video production in his spare time. “I live beside a nature reserve that not many people know about, called Traad, just off the western shores of Lough Neagh. So, I produce short videos from the nature reserve to showcase it,” he says.

“I’ve always been interested in combining business interests with website design – even when I was younger I was building sites and trying to figure out how to solve problems I saw with other websites I frequently visited.”

Was this all self-taught? “There is so much information online, you can just Google it and figure it out for yourself. YouTube tutorials can teach you so much on almost any subject,” he adds.

When I ask where he wants to be in five years, McElhone says: “Some farmers aren’t able to partake in frequent surveying because of the large cost involved. We want to bring this capability to any farmer no matter how small, no matter what their income is.”

About CropSafe

  • The application uses satellite images to detect diseases in crop fields
  • One example would be sugar beet fields, which are prone to a powdery mildew and a rust disease
  • CropSafe’s app flags up abnormalities in the crop, using its online dashboard
  • Using machine learning algorithms, it continually improves the ability to detect disease
  • The information means that farmers can pinpoint their sprays – using them less – to benefit the ecology and the economics of a margin-based business

CropSafe is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Catalyst, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2019 will take place on Thursday 10 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland