By Mark Waghorn
A Batman-inspired drone that could help feed the world has been developed by scientists.
It hunts down and destroys moths that plague giant greenhouses.
The Caped Crusader was chosen as a model because he cruises stealthily through the air—like the flying mammals.
Dayo Jansen, a Ph.D. student from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said: “The idea of using drones as an alternative solution to eliminating moths all started in the bedroom of one of the co-owners of the PATS startup company.
“He was fed up with all the mosquitoes keeping him awake, and he made a drone that hunts down mosquitoes.”
“The machines are controlled by cameras that register the target.
“Based on parameters such as the size of the insect, the frequency of its wing beat, the flight path and the time of flight—in the case of the moth at night—it knows what kind of insect it is.
“The autonomous drone that is waiting for a signal on its charger goes over and ‘bang’—moth ends up in the propellors rather than vital pollinators such as bees.”
The global population will reach nearly 10 billion within the next three decades. More food will have to be produced indoors, but climate change is fueling plants pests and diseases. Prolonged droughts or floods exacerbate the problem. To counter that, agricultural productivity must double in the next 30 years to meet demands.
While the drones are effective at removing moths, the noise affects the moth’s flight behaviors.
“After analyzing the sounds, we found that it produces ultrasound in the same range as a bat would be, the moth’s natural predator,” said Jansen.
“Some moths still ignore the noise and get eliminated quickly, but for the moths that do get scared, we doubled down on the sound with our speakers by creating an environment where some of the moths would cease to fly.”
To detect when a moth is flying in the greenhouse, Jansen uses an infrared camera that can differentiate the moths from other flying insects based on wing beat frequency and size.
“This makes sure we only attack moths and not the bumblebees that are used for pollination,” said Jansen. “The moment a moth flies into detection range, a drone will spin up and hunt the moth down.”
But several moth species behave quite erratically in response to the drones.
Jansen said: “I study these erratic responses and try to find ways to predict the moth’s actions in the future and let the drone move where the moth is bound to go.”
The study presented at a Society for Experimental Biology meeting in Edinburgh also found playing ultrasonic noises through speakers influences the moth’s flight.
“We find out what sound each moth species is most scared of, making them cease their flight as a whole,” said Jansen.
“We do this firstly by figuring out which bat hunts the moth species that we want to tackle and secondly, study the tympanic hearing organ of the moths to find the sounds that they’re most sensitive to.”
When a moth was captured on camera the speaker played bursts of ultrasound and the moth’s flight was tracked. This was repeated 850 times.
Diving into the ground was found to be the most common behavior, causing the moths to erratically fly into the crops instead of finding a partner for reproduction.
“For certain moth species we found that this has the effect of them not even flying anymore and therefore quickly diminishing their flight activity in our systems,” said Jansen.
“It has become increasingly difficult to counter agricultural pests. Due to climate change, newer pest species are being introduced in previously inhabitable areas, and monoculture has become a standard in a lot of greenhouses.
“Greenhouse owners tend to specialize on a singular crop which has the added risk that when a suitable pest species enters the greenhouse, it finds itself in pest heaven and reproduces uncontrollably fast.”
The current way of dealing with greenhouse pest infestation is often to use a tremendous number of unsustainable pesticides.
It’s hoped futuristic drones will make pesticides a thing of the past.
Currently, the camera vision recognition system (PATS-C) is available and currently active in around 250 greenhouses across Europe.
The bat-inspired drone hunting system (PATS-X) is being trialed and will be released by the end of the year.
Jansen said: “With my research, we aim to dive deep into some of the most common and harmful species in the European greenhouses and make sure our systems are ready for a tailored approach against them.
“We hope to illustrate the positive effect that comes from bridging the gap between biologists, engineers and industry.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Alberto Arellano and Joseph Donald Gunderson
The San Diego Monitor-News has been serving Black San Diego since 1986