Sustainable Blog

Ag Innovations: Robotic Bug Trackers

Z-Traps let farmers track pests from their smartphones

Spensa Technologies' Z-Trap in the field

Photo: Johnny Park

Here’s a head-scratching statistic: In 2010, crop growers in the United States lost $20 billion a year due to insect damage despite spending $4.5 billion on pesticide applications. It turns out that agricultural pest management is a surprisingly inefficient system that involves sticky traps, updating spreadsheets, and a lot of legwork.

Spensa Technologies, an Indiana-based startup, has come up with a way to save growers legwork, hassle, and money—and reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on crops—by automating the insect-tracking process. They started selling robotic Z-Traps and an online tool called MyTraps.com this year, and just made news for winning $50,000 in the Village Capital VentureWell startup accelerator program, which Sustainable America helped sponsor. We spoke with Kim Nicholson, Spensa Technologies’ vice president of business development, to learn more about the product and the company.

Sustainable America: How did the idea for the company come about?

Kim Nicholson: Originally our founder, Dr. Johnny Park, participated in a USDA grant project that was looking at a broad range of automation in agriculture. They were looking at all the areas that were highly labor intensive, costly to the grower, and inefficient. And they were looking at ways modern technology could automate that. Our founder is a computer vision and robotics expert. He knew nothing about agriculture, but he quickly saw that there were a number of areas to use the things that he was passionate about around robotics in helping out agriculture. The very first thing he invented was this automatic insect tracking system. He opted to form the company in 2009 and licensed the patent. The patent was held by Purdue since he invented it as an employee there.

SA: Why did he choose to focus on insect tracking?

KN: Growers today who are growing fruits, vegetables, and other crops certainly appreciate that we as consumers don’t like the idea of insecticides on our produce. It’s also a costly part of their operation. To manage pests, they use something called integrated pest management. It’s a decades-old tool where they have to go out and count the number of insects in a given field, and when they reach a certain number of insects in the population that’s when it’s deemed appropriate and cost effective to spray. The way they have to do that now is to literally put sticky traps in the field and someone has to go in there and count the bugs and scrape off the bugs and hang them back in the tree or in the field They do this every week throughout the season and have to keep track of it.

There can be hundreds of these traps in a given producer’s fields so it’s a very time-consuming and messy process. It’s tied to some well-researched thresholds, but it does have problems with inaccuracy because I might go out and check my traps yesterday and the insect population hasn’t reached threshold, but if I can’t really afford to go out there until a week later, by the time I get out there my population might be extremely past the threshold. Now I’m spraying every day trying to get the population under control, and it’s not terribly efficient.

SA: How does your new trapping device work?

KN: Our trap fully automates the process, so you hang them in the trees or field at the beginning of the season, they use a bio impedance sensor to detect the insect that we’re looking for, they count it, and they report it wirelessly. I just simply open my computer or smartphone and I see my counts 24/7 whenever I want to look at them. If I want to set an alert that tells me, Hey, you just hit threshold in block #7 of your apple orchard, it’s time to spray, I can do that with our software. So it’s much more efficient; it takes the labor component out of it and also will keep the grower from having to go into rescue spray mode if they crest over the threshold.

SA: What stage is the company in now?

KN: We have a fully developed set of hardware that we started selling this past spring. We’ve manufactured a limited number of the hardware devices and actually sold them out in less than 60 days. Then we have the complementary software that we’ve been selling as a subscription for a little over a year now. We’re still a very small company, but we have a real product that’s in the market with real customers who have paid for it and are using it.

SA: Is it designed just for fruit and vegetable growers?

KN: The most intensive monitoring is around any kind of fruit and vegetable production, but there is monitoring in big broad acre crops like cotton, rice, corn and wheat. There are also government monitoring programs, so we just got a small grant to look at the USDA gypsy moth monitoring program. The USDA is monitoring about 250,000 insect traps for a nasty bug called the gypsy moth that’s basically destroying our forestland in the Northeast. They’re often in very remote locations, and it’s very costly for the government. So it’s not just a farmer issue; there are a number of other groups or organizations that are monitoring. In fact, there are about 161 different kinds of insects monitored around the world for different purposes.

SA: What will the award from the incubator program allow you to do next?

KN: We’re getting ready for our 2014 spring season so this gives us an unexpected resource to build a few extra units or do extra marketing that we couldn’t have afforded before, so it’s going to help us move the needle on expanding the business.

SA: What did you get out of participating in the program?

KN: We had some formal training from the organizers of the program, which was interesting, but probably the most helpful piece was the collaborative feedback from the general cohort. Other entrepreneurs are very honest. Of course not everyone in the cohort could know the business as well as we do, but they were very good at saying, Well you need to make that clearer or you need to fine-tune that message or you need to demonstrate x, y and z to convince me that you have a real business. That was very helpful to us.

SA: What kind of advice would you have for other startups in this space of sustainability or agriculture?

KN: I think as entrepreneurs we get caught up in our product or our service, and everybody thinks theirs is the next great thing. But I think going out and proving it, talking to potential customers, talking to people in the industry, making sure that what you’re developing or the value proposition that you’ve established for your product or service makes sense for the people who are ultimately going to write you a check for it is important. Don’t short-shift that process because it’s so important to how you’re going to ultimately be successful.

SA: Does Spensa have plans for other products?

KN: Yes, we’re looking at a number of areas of automation in the agricultural sector and how we can use this type of technology. There’s a wide-open space around expanding on what we have, which is basically a wireless field sensor network. It’s like building a cell tower network where you can attach different types of cell phones, so things that might be tracking ambient temperature or moisture levels or even disease or other things that are going on in an agricultural setting that a grower needs to monitor and may help him to improve his productivity. And then there is the broader area of automation. There’s lots of work to be done around robotic harvesting and pruning — things that are still very labor intensive in the agriculture sector.

Sustainable America has a goal to increase food availability by 50% by 2035, and we’re proud to support agricultural innovations like Z-Traps that help make our food system more efficient. If you’re part of a startup focused on agriculture or transportation issues, click here to learn about our next fellowship competition. (Hurry, the deadline is October 31, 2013.)

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.