IPM 2.0 - The Role of AI and Robots in the Success of Pest Management Programs

by Dr. Saber Miresmailli, PhD.

(This article also appears in the February 2022 issue of Greenhouse Canada magazine. https://www.greenhousecanada.com/digital-edition/ )

Since the 1950s, the concept of integrated pest management (IPM) has revolved around defining acceptable levels of pests and diseases and preventative cultural practices. Typically, this has involved extensive monitoring and manual record-keeping, mechanical and biological control of pests and diseases and, if necessary, responsible use of pesticides, preferably in limited areas. This core philosophy is still relevant today but since the 1950s, the size of operations has changed dramatically and with that, the size of the problem.

There was a time when we had fewer greenhouses and enough people to manage them, but the number of greenhouses globally has increased yet the human resources did not increase at the same rate. In these operations, knowledgeable humans cannot be everywhere at once and things can get out of hand. Couple that with limitations posed by easily spread plant viruses such as the tomato brown rugrose virus (ToBRFV) or pests such as thrips, plus the global pandemic, access to plants and farms is even more limited now than it was a few years ago.

This is where technology to manage pest outbreaks in your greenhouse can help.

Over the past two decades, robots and automation, and more recently artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, have entered farms and greenhouses. While some areas have fully embraced these technologies (i.e., sorting machines based on computer vision, automatic trollies, climate computers, irrigation management) some areas are still in their early stages of research and development (e.g. robots for harvesting, de-leafing robots and plant lowering).

The IPM related technologies are more mature in comparison. As many know, monitoring is essential for IPM success, and many applications can now digitize (store written observations to a computer database) human observations on the ground. The conventional practice consists of scouts walking the crop, recording their location, and jotting down what they see on a piece of paper or simply memorizing them and discussing with their managers.

How can I use technology to store and analyse pest activity in my greenhouse?

At a minimum, pest monitoring applications use phones or tablets to record and digitize human observations. Some allow the user to snap and save a picture along with their notes. These apps can create a digital archive of human observations, and their records can be used to generate historical trends. They can facilitate some administrative aspects of IPM record-keeping, but these applications entirely rely on human input.

The second tier of monitoring technologies consists of sensors and cameras that passively or actively collect information from the crops to determine the health of the plants. These technologies range from high-resolution visible RGB to thermal, infra-red, multispectral, hyperspectral and UV cameras, as well as climate, chemical, and electrophysiological sensors. The sensory data and imaging information is usually coupled with a machine learning/AI engine that either flags anomalies in the data sets or detects specific patterns or objects. Some of these platforms capture the data and send it to the cloud for further analytics and some use edge computing (data processed live on a chip) based on CPU or GPU to provide real-time analytics.

All these technologies require extensive training and a model monitoring platform to ensure their accuracy and performance are maintained. These cloud-based systems must address connectivity and bandwidth available on the farm as well as data security and privacy matters.

Most farms are in rural areas where high-speed internet is not available therefore, alternative solutions such as edge-based tech are a better fit compared to cloud-based solutions because they have less dependency on high-speed internet. Since in edge-based technologies, the data stays on the farm, the possibility of hacking, data leaks and cyber-security breaches are significantly lower compared to cloud-based solutions where everything is broadcast out of the farm.

What is the best pest management strategy for my greenhouse?

The third tier of solutions combine digitization of human observations with automatic data collection through a series of sensors and cameras. They offer a comprehensive and holistic description of verified pests such as thrips, aphids and whiteflies – and many more, and disease status in the greenhouse. Equipped with edge computing, these solutions can produce real-time risk alerts. Furthermore, these solutions can provide outbreak projections and predictions.

No matter what tier of technology is used for monitoring pests and diseases, one must use the incoming data to formulate a proper course of action and treatment to fix the problem. This is also an area where technology can significantly help growers. Using IPM analytics and additional measurements such as micro-climate, physiological state of the crop, pest and disease threshold levels and age of the crop, AI systems can calculate the most optimized course of action that provides the best pest control for the lowest price.

But this is not the end. Even if accurate information comes through good monitoring and the most optimized treatment is prescribed; one still needs to administer the treatment properly, in the right place, while following the correct instructions to achieve the desired results. This is yet another area where robots can help. Robotic sprayers have been in the market for more than a decade and now alternative solutions such as UVc treatments, biopesticide sprayers and robotic systems for dispersal of biological control agents are becoming commercially available. There are even technologies that physically remove pests from the greenhouses, such as giant vacuums and moth-killing drones.

Can pest management programs be adequately managed by using AI and robots?

Combining all these technologies provides an opportunity for a new age of integrated pest management programs where an end-to-end solution can be offered as a service. As a first step, growers should first determine their operational needs, their specific issues of interest, and their budgets. Service providers can then put together a package that consists of the right monitoring technologies, prescription algorithms and treatment platforms that take care of the problem. Human knowledge and influence will still be part of this new system, but the sheer size of the operation or its geographical location shouldn’t be limiting factors.

The IPM manager should still have the option to veto the machine’s recommendations and adjust them based on their insights or other considerations - because people know the unique “personalities” of their greenhouses and climates. The digital nature of these platforms and their ability to verify the effectiveness of a certain decision will allow growers to perform micro-experimentations and fine-tune their knowledge while keeping the crop clean and pest and disease-free.

The best way to ensure AI and robots can help and benefit your operations is to invest in a very knowledgeable IPM manager who can train and utilize these technologies and if necessary, overwrite their recommendations. In the same way that most sophisticated and technologically advanced airplanes still need a human pilot to fly, the most advanced platforms for IPM still need a human supervisor.

Every year, more pesticides are removed from the IPM arsenal and every year, growers face new pests and diseases. Adding to that pressure, consumers are demanding pesticide-free food (or organic food) resulting in retailers requiring higher standards – even using cosmetic damage as a reason to return produce. In today’s current operating environment, implementing some form of IPM technology is becoming a necessity. Whether you go all in and invest in the full fleet of robots and AI or do the bare minimum of digitizing your practice through apps, YOU NEED TO DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW if you want to be on top of your game and future-proof your operation.

How can I find out what pest management services I need and can afford?

If you are interested in learning more about integrated pest management and technology for your greenhouse crop, feel free to reach out to one of ecoation’s expert sales team members or customer success specialists at info@ecoation.com.

Our IPM platform is based on a subscription for our software services and the hardware required is included in your monthly fees. You choose the services you need, at the budget you can afford.

Ecoation’s services include:

  • Integrated Pest Management Digitization and Risk Management

  • Yield Assessment and Harvest Planning

  • Crop Quality Check (through the 360 degree camera)

  • Remote Consultation

  • 3D Climate per square meter

  • Task Management

  • Automated Actuary and Remote Viewing of the Crops