By Scott Simpson, Friday, February 22, 2013
Michael Gilbert, President and CEO of SemiosBIO with Semiosnet trap and dispenser. His company developed pest control technology based on pheromones rather than pesticide.
Gilbert’s company, SemiosBIO, is using wireless communication to change the way the world grows fruit and nuts. If they’re successful – and early indications are very positive – Canada could show the world how to build a ‘smart’ farm that automates pest control methods which haven’t changed a lot since Sumerians dusted with crops with sulphur in Mesopotamia around 4500 BC.
The company is combining chemistry, computer software and wireless networks to disrupt breeding of common agricultural pests such as codling moths – the bugs that cause worms to grow in apples.
The technology falls into the category of machine-to-machine or M2M as its known in the wireless industry, because it involves machines communicating autonomously to each other — and taking actions based on the information exchanged. BC Hydro’s smart meters fall into the same category, as will other smart devices installed in household appliances, automobiles, even factories, as the technology becomes more widely adopted.
SemiosBIO is using pheromones, a well-established alternative to pesticides, to confuse insects during their breeding stage. Then it’s adding solar-powered communications, thermometers, barometers, wind vanes and a cloud-based computing network that turns each orchard and vineyard on its system into a full-time remote weather and insect monitoring station.
Over time the company will amass a trove of information that should strip away any lingering mysteries about the behaviour of the bugs they’re trying to deter — and make SemiosBIO the curator of a proprietary and marketable databank.
They start out with the commonplace sticky traps that gauge insect populations in an orchard. Convention requires farmers to inspect the traps every few days in order to see when codling moth breeding season might be peaking. On that basis, they spray pesticide. If they don’t look at the right time, they could miss the peak. Often, farmers overspray pesticide just to ensure their crops are safe.
To improve the process and reduce dependence on pesticide, SemiosBIO mounts a tiny camera on the roof of each trap, then sets it to transmit every 10 minutes an image of what’s stuck on the floor. It’s like a closed-circuit security camera network, except it’s designed to detect bugs rather than burglars.
At present, SemiosBIO has entomologists on staff who count the insect levels in traps by examining the photos on a computer screen in the company’s office in Discovery Park on Great Northern Way in East Vancouver. In the near future the bug count will be handled by a computer program that will recognize the signs of a breeding-related population surge.
Once a surge is detected, either by a human observer or an algorithm that reads images, an order is transmitted back to the orchard where a shoebox-sized container holding a canister of pheromone is wired in. The canister emits a puff, the male moths catch wind of it and confuses it with the scent of a female moth who’s prepared to mate. The males don’t find her, the eggs she lays on the surface of an apple don’t become fertilized, and the apple is safe from a burrowing grub that never fails to invoke a reaction of disgust from someone who bites into its adopted home.
Gilbert was formerly a chemist specializing in the development of molecules for the pharmaceutical industry — notably with Vancouver’s Cardiome Pharma before its sale for $800 million US to Merck & Co in 2009.
“Once we did that deal I decided to go into my own space,” Gilbert said in a recent interview at his office. He looked around for a sector that was open to change, and settled on agriculture.
There were already pheromone-based products on the market — notably, small pheromone-impregnated dispensers that are hung from trees. Gilbert decided he could do better, designed his own codling moth pheromone molecule, and attracted $6 million capital including $1 million in seed financing from investors as well as $5 million government grants.
“I partnered with some investors who have a lot of technology experience in automating and wireless technologies. We looked at the solutions. We said we need more than just better chemicals for agriculture, we need a better way of delivering them,” he said.
“So we put together this product we have now, which is a wireless communication and delivery system.”
This year they will cover between 3,000 and 4,000 acres including about a third of the Okanagan Valley, plus orchards in Ontario, Washington state, California, Pennsylvania, Spain, Italy and South America.
In North America, the apple industry alone covers 400,000 acres and is worth $2 billion a year.
“It’s the solution that was needed right now, and that’s why we got lots of traction with investors, with government bodies saying we want farmers to have this solution today,” Gilbert said.
SemiosBIO this year will manufacture over 200 devices, including traps, pheromone puffers and solar-powered ‘gateway’ communication devices which incorporate a weather station and a wireless transmitter that connects the puffers and traps to a database in the cloud. Each acre of land gets its own puffer. The pheromone is so powerful and effective that a half-litre canister lasts an entire growing season.
Farmers can log into the database from a hand-held mobile device on a conventional wireless network such as Rogers or Telus and view a pest profile grid — sort of like an overhead view of the orchard — that’s less than 10 minutes old and can be scrutinized acre by acre.
Residual pesticide levels allowed in food sold in Europe will plunge next year to a fraction of what’s allowed in Canada and the U.S., and greater restrictions are expected here, as well.
That means farmers will need innovation to protect crops. Gilbert said trials last year in the Okanagan indicated their system was 98 per cent effective in controlling reproduction of codling moths. He said switching to the automated pheromone system costs “approximately the same” as a full regime of pesticide application. It won’t eliminate pesticide use entirely, but it will curtail it enough to qualify with tighter regulations for conventional, if not organic, food production.
The added value is in time saved, and in building a valuable database for farmers.
SemiosBIO has been assisted in marketing by Wavefront, the Vancouver-based centre of excellence for Canadian wireless technology research.
James Maynard, Wavefront president and CEO, took Gilbert on a tour to Europe last summer in which the organization put some of Canada’s best machine-to-machine innovators in front of potential investors. Interest in SemiosBIO was strong, Maynard said, particularly among wireless service carriers who sensed an emerging business opportunity.
“We were in Brussels. People were driving from Amsterdam, — they were coming from all over Europe,” Maynard recalled. “ We took the same group to South America. Word had gone ahead of Semios. There were people waiting to meet them.”
In a recent study co-authored by the National Research Council of Canada, Wavefront noted a wide array of technology opportunities in B.C.’s $19 billion agriculture sector. Innovations could range from robotic milking of dairy cows and radio-tracking of cattle herds, to greenhouse climate control technology and maximizing the harvest in B.C.’s world-leading blueberry industry.
Andrew Koran, B.C. commercial sales manager for Rogers, described the size of a growing region such as the Okanagan Valley as “massive” in the context of wireless service delivery.
“Machine to machine is a transformative technology that’s changing every sector of the economy,” Koran said.
“It allows organizations to gain access to critical data and really streamline their operations. For an individual user, he added “it’s going to touch every aspect of their lives going forward in many ways we may not know or even necessarily understand.”
For orchard operators using technology a reliable, secure communications link is ‘critical,” Koran added.
“These (systems) cover immense areas. You’re not talking about a little parking lot where you can put up a Wi-Fi hot spot zone. You’re talking about acres and acres and acres. That’s why a carrier-grade solution is really a necessity.”
Michael Gilbert doubts his company’s products will replace pesticide completely, but “we can reduce it quite a bit”
“What we do is called precision pest management. It’s about the smart systems in place as opposed to just using really strong chemicals — use a smarter system, and what we call softer chemicals to get the same effect.
“One of the things we do is offer (an online) control centre. They can go on board and press buttons, increase or decrease the amount of (pheromone) spraying — so they have control of what’s happening on the property. That’s part of the transition – make sure they always have that control over the property.”
Last year at pilot test orchards in B.C. and Ontario, the company got 98 per cent shutdown of the insects, Gilbert said.
“You never completely eradicate the pest but you always have it under control.”
They could handle big orders for their products “right now,” Gilbert said.
Farmers adopting the technology get a two-year free trial.
Robert Dawson, a second-generation apple grower, will need to be convinced the technology will succeed in undulating terrain such as his 85-acre orchard in the Similkameen Valley.
Pheromones have been more effective curtailing pests in land that’s more flat — and where an adjacent orchard isn’t a regular “hot spot” for insect breeding.
But he’s watching closely.
“Obviously a non-spray program is preferable,” Dawson said. “I hope that the pheromone dispersal works. It’s cheaper, easier. Certainly going out in the middle of summer three or four times on my sprayer is not exactly what I look forward to.”
Hank Markgraf, horticultural manager at BC Tree Fruits, notes that Okanagan growers are at a bit of a milestone. For many years they suppressed codling moth populations by releasing sterile males into orchards during peak breeding.
However, he noted, the organization’s irradiation equipment is wearing out “so we either have to buy a new cell, which is going to be pretty expensive, or we go to this newer technology,” Markgraf said.
Three decades ago, growers had seven weather stations dispersed around the Valley and you had to check them manually if you wanted to review weather information. That grew to 15, then 40 as the digital age advanced.
Now, you can have a station in every orchard to account for local distinctions in weather.
“All I’d have to do is go on the World Wide Web, go to my individual orchard and go, ‘Wow, I’m two days away from an infection period or potentially having to kill these pests, or whatever,” Markgraf said.
“The ultimate goal here is always to reduce the amount of pesticides that are being used, and only use them when absolutely necessary. The more data you can have, the more science you can use, the better off you can get.
“We will never get away from the pesticides. There is always going to be some control measure required but if I only have to do it once a year instead of four times a year, that’s a 75 per cent reduction.”
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