Trial sheds light on control of destructive potato aphid

Experts from two universities in the Midlands are launching a new project to develop a photonic ‘nose’ to monitor crops for pest infestations and plant diseases.

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

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, up to 40% of global agricultural production is lost each year to pests. Each year, plant diseases cost the global economy more than $220 billion and invasive insects at least $70 billion.

Midlands-based research will use strawberries to test the new technology. The fruit is worth £350million to the UK economy, but is vulnerable to the potato aphid which has the potential to wipe out an annual crop.

Currently crops are treated with pesticides, but there is growing pressure to find alternatives due to the environmental impact.

One method is to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to create an early warning system. It monitors plants for insect and disease buildup rather than spraying plants with chemicals, but so far has proven to be unreliable and expensive.

The new project uses recent developments in photonics technology that can analyze low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by plants, which indicate their health.

This is coupled with machine learning hardware that makes it practical to use artificial intelligence in business environments.

Professor David Webb of the Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (AIPT) said: “Better technologies for monitoring invertebrate pests and plant diseases will go a long way to reducing crop losses.

“However, most electronic noses use electrochemical sensors, which suffer from sensitivity issues, sensor drift/aging effects, and lack specificity.

“We intend to solve this problem by building on the rapidly evolving technology of photonics – the science of light – while collaborating with scientists from 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 by their molecules to the Landscapes Project, which funds interdisciplinary solutions to “real world” challenges.

Dr Joe Roberts of Harper Adams University said: “With the projected increase in the world’s population, the agricultural sector is under increasing pressure to achieve higher agricultural yields.

“Reducing crop losses in existing production systems will improve food security without increasing resource use.

“We intend to establish an interdisciplinary community of experts in agricultural science, optical sensing and machine learning to develop novel plant health monitoring platforms that improve agricultural production through localized pest monitoring. and diseases in order to detect hot spots.”