Tag Archives: environment

The exciting potential for sensors and drones to combat global hunger

January 27

In 2013, I made my first trip to Ethiopia. Knowing a bit about the country’s economic circumstances, I fully expected the grim poverty that I’d later encounter. After all, like millions of Americans, I watched the devastating famine there unfold on television in the 1980s.

At the same time, Ethiopia has made great strides since then. Ethiopia halved the number of its undernourished people from 75 percent to 35 percent in two decades, according to the United Nations. Still, that 35 percent is considerable – the U.N.’s World Food Programme estimates that3.2 million Ethiopians need food relief assistance.

So imagine my surprise when I entered a restroom in a small town outside Addis, the capital, and found sensorized urinals – the kind that self-flush. I don’t normally notice urinals, but in Ethiopia, where electricity and indoor plumbing are unreliable at best, sensorized urinals catch your attention. To find something as relatively advanced as a sensorized machine in a small Ethiopian town doesn’t necessarily say much about the country; but it says a lot about the machine.

In particular, it illustrates the potential of sensors and how they could hold the key to significantly reducing the world’s hunger problem. Sensors are everywhere and in everything, at least in developed nations such as the United States. They’ve revolutionized our mobile phones, and are now powering the next wave of wearable tech devices. Sensors are the reason the automotive industry is poised to deliver a driverless car.

The best thing about sensors, aside from their potential? They’re dirt cheap. The average smartphone holds five to seven sensors that cost about $5 combined. In 2007, an accelerometer, which comes standard in all smartphones today, cost $7 — now it costs less than 50 cents. The steep price decline, which has been in place since the early 1990s, is a function of strong competition in the smartphone arena and the growing number of applications using sensor technology. But nothing mandates that sensors are for smartphones only.

Which brings us back to Ethiopia. Now that you see how cheap sensors are today, the notion that a small, dusty town in Ethiopia can afford a sensorized urinal doesn’t seem all that remarkable. But let’s take this one step further. Sensorized devices are multiplying across every sector of the economy. Heavy industry uses sensors to increase productivity. Airplanes employ sensors in their “fly-by-wire” systems. Physicians can prescribe digestible sensors to monitor and wirelessly transmit biometric data.

According to the Digital Universe report from the International Data Corporation, the total number of “connectable things” – everyday objects that can be linked to the Internet – in the world is around 200 billion. Of those, about 20 billion are actually wired and talking to the Internet right now. They’re able to do so through a network of roughly 50 billion sensors that track, monitor and feed data to those connected devices. And the IDC estimates that by 2020, the number of connected things will increase by 50 percent to 30 billion, while the network of sensors will number in the trillions.

So, what does this have to do with solving the global food crisis? There’s enough food in the world to feed every person on the earth, yet through a combination of inefficiencies, supply-chain obstacles and oppressive government regulation, hundreds of millions of people are undernourished. Indeed, many food shortages arise because of misallocation of information. Suppliers of food are unaware of shortages and unaware of market prices. I’ve heard stories of food rotting on African farms only miles away from desolate starvation.

Equipping food-supply material such as storage containers, warehouses and shelves with sensors allows us to know instantly the moment a shortage exists. And I mean instantly in the literal sense. With sensors, we don’t need to wait for a person to count hundreds of containers to realize that there won’t be enough food for the community –a time-consuming process that too often doesn’t happen anyway. Sensors help remove those layers of inefficiency, shortening data’s transmission chain, skipping potential inhibitors and triggering faster response times.

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DuBravac is the chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association and the author of the book, “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate” (Regnery, 2015). Follow him on Twitter

Courtesy: Washington Post

Using Drones in the Fight Against Apple Scab

By Rachel Rohr on October 28, 2013

Photography by Rachel Rohr

For apple growers in the eastern United States, the biggest problem – the most relentless, pervasive, unavoidable issue, which can ruin a whole crop if not managed aggressively – is apple scab. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working on a new tool to combat the apple scourge: A drone.

 The fungal infection causes dark scabby lesions on the leaves and skin of the apple, which leaves the flavour unaffected, but does effectively make it unsaleable.

“It’s a huge issue,” says Peter Wagner, owner of Applecrest Farm Orchards, a 110-acre orchard in south east New Hampshire. “Thirty years ago, you were allowed to have a scab on your apple that was probably 10 millimetres, or half the size of a dime, without a problem at all. Now you can’t put any of that in the apple pack, so it renders the apple unmarketable.”

Apple scab is less of an issue in drier regions, such as Washington state. But in places like New York, New Hampshire, Vermont or Massachusetts, apple scab is the number one pathogen and apple farmers’ primary concern.

In recent decades, researchers have made strides in understanding the fungus’s life cycle, so farmers are spraying less than they used to, with better results. Some farmers even use predictive models, such as the Dutch program RIMpro to forecast the best spraying times. But apple scab is still a persistent battle, and it’s especially difficult – if not nearly impossible – for organic farmers to grow a scab-free crop.

So researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working on a new tool for fighting apple scab: Drones.

“When you think about apple production now, a grower needs to walk through his orchard every day to make sure he sees any new insect pests or any new disease pests that come into an orchard,” says plant pathologist Kirk D. Broders, an assistant professor at UNH. “But when you’re talking about a 10, 20, 100-acre orchard, your ability to do that on a daily basis is almost impossible.”

But it is possible with a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, carrying an infra-red camera that takes multi spectral images of the orchard. A computer program crunches the wavelengths in each pixel, making it possible to hone in on colours and temperatures – and locate apple scab.

“If you had a UAV that had the capacity to go up once a day, take a digital image or multiple digital images – both in infra-red and then in normal spectrum — you could actually monitor your orchard”

Broders says the ultimate goal is to develop an orchard-monitoring UAV system that could be sold to growers.

It’s not the first time that multi spectral imaging has been used in agriculture. Researchers have analysed plants using lab equipment, and large farming operations can hire air planes to fly over and take multi spectral images of large swaths of corn or soy beans to monitor crop health.

“What we are trying to do is develop a system that allows us to do things in-between – so not at the single-plant lab scale, and not at the air plane several-fields-at-a-time scale,” Broders said. “We’re trying to develop a low-cost system that could actually be used by either individual researchers or individual growers.”

At Applecrest Farm, Peter Wagner calls the prospect of an affordable infra-red imaging system that could be used daily, “pretty awesome.”

“I think that’s a great endeavour – no question – particularly the fact that most scab that we don’t eradicate usually occurs at the top of the tree,” Wagner said. “In the old days with big trees, you could climb up and look around – which is time consuming – but now with the new plantings, the trees are younger, smaller, and it’s harder to climb because the limbs aren’t as strong.”

Wallhead and Broders envision apple growers using the drone-camera system in conjunction with the predictive models for apple scab – the real-time data that tell farmers when to spray.

“The UAV is really only one tool we’re using to manage apple scab, because apple scab is so difficult to control,” Broders said. “We’re using our predictive model to improve application of organically-certified compounds. We’re using the UAV for early detection. And then whenever possible, we’re utilizing resistant varieties to also help us reduce fungicide inputs and provide better control.”

One scab-resistant variety growing in the experimental research orchard at UNH’s Woodman Farm is Crimson Crisp, the product of collaboration among Purdue University, Rutgers and University of Illinois.

While apple scab is the main concern in the eastern U.S., the multi spectral data can also be used to detect other problems – from insect damage to nitrogen deficiency. Pinpointed applications of fertilizer, pesticides and fungicides mean growers are using less, which is better for the environment and consumers – as well as the farmer’s bottom line.

The drones could even be used to monitor forest health, scanning for disease or invasive beetles.

“I think it has applications even beyond agriculture,” Broders said. “And I think there are a number of people that are just now beginning to understand what these unmanned aerial vehicles are capable of doing.”

Courtesy: Modern farmer.