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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. )

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 rugose virus (ToBRFV) or pests such as thrips, plus the global pandemic, access to plants and farms are 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 it with their managers.

How can I use technology to store and analyze 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 combines the 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 clima