Cell phones combat agricultural pests in Asia

SINGAPORE – Ordinary cell phones have emerged as a tool to combat agricultural pests.

Using the mPest Insect Sound Android mobile application, farmers take their cell phones into the field to pick up sounds of insects on their land. The sounds are analyzed to detect which insects are present; if any pests are there, farmers can use highly targeted methods to combat insects that are reducing crop yields.

Because the technology is entirely based on audio, farmers can use it at night, when visual detection of insect pests is difficult.

Use of mPest by individual farmers is just one feature of the system: It can be scaled to integrate insect data from farms throughout a region and then calculate more accurate forecasts of pest infestations throughout the region.

To make mPest available widely, the app comes in three versions, from one for advanced smart phones to another for the least expensive low-end “dumb” cell phones. There is also an intermediate version for low-cost smart phones; that version uses icons instead of more complex graphics used in the most advanced version.

The app was developed here at the Centre of Social Media Innovations for Communities (COSMIC), a partnership of Two Singaporean universities – NUS (National University of Singapore) and NTU (Nanyang Technological University) — and one from India, IITB (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay) in Mumbai. The COSMIC Agriculture team consists of researchers from NUS and IITB.

In the United States, researchers at the University of California, Riverside are developing insect sound detection as a tool to fight malaria more effectively (see “What Can Computer Science Do for Malaria Research”).

However, Asia’s mPest app relies on cell phones, already in use on millions of farms, rather than more specialized, albeit inexpensive, instruments.

Roger Zimmermann, an NUS associate professor and COSMIC researcher, noted at a Sunnylands forum in California that this enables mPest to be used by farmers who may not now be served by digital technology.

Zimmermann said this means mPest can be used not just by the 1.5 billion people who are already well connected – “ready and well-served”- but also by 3.2 billion people whom he described as “ready but not well served” (see slide 4 of his presentation).

In this part of the world, agricultural pests can reduce production by 35% in India to 38% in China, according to Zimmermann.

“There is an ongoing effort to extend the work beyond pests,” Zimmermann said last week, “and do holistic agriculture management in these underserved communities.”

The name for this overall system is VillageTree, he added, and it is led by Klarissa Chang.

Those farmers described by Zimmermann as “well-served” already enjoy double the production of the “not well served” – US$800 per acre, versus US$400/acre. The mission of mPest and VillageTree is to reduce that gap.