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January 17, 2024 The Entomology Profession 0

The Insect Eavesdropper, a system that uses a contact microphone and minicomputer to analyze the vibrational signals of insects feeding on plants, took 1st Place in the 2023 ESA Antlion Pit, an innovation competition for entomology-related products and services. View the 2023 Antlion Pit presentation session here. (The video is cued to start with the Insect Eavesdropper presentation; skip back or ahead to see other segments.)

Last November at Entomology 2023 saw the return of the Antlion Pit, an innovation competition for entomology-related products and services. Six teams were selected to compete out of nine applications, with the “Insect Eavesdropper” team earning 1st Place and a $5,000 prize to invest in advancing their product, a system using a contact microphone and a minicomputer to detect and identify the vibrational signals of insects feeding on plants.

A system that uses a contact microphone and minicomputer to analyze the vibrational signals of insects feeding on plants took 1st Place in the 2023 ESA Antlion Pit, an innovation competition for entomology-related products and services. The creators of the Insect Eavesdropper are Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE-Intern (left), assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dev Mehrotra (right), master’s student in computer science working in Bick’s lab at UW.

The creators of the Insect Eavesdropper are Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE-Intern, assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dev Mehrotra, master’s student in computer science working in Bick’s lab at UW.

Entomology Today connected with Bick and Mehrotra for a Q&A to learn more about Insect Eavesdropper and its development.

Entomology Today: How did you both get started on developing the Insect Eavesdropper? What inspired this pursuit?

Bick and Mehrotra: When Emily visited a sugarcane farm in Indonesia, she was challenged to develop a sensor to directly measure insects boring within plants, rather than monitoring adult immigration and using degree days to predict when boring larvae were active. After looking into existing technologies such as laser vibrometers, electric stethoscopes, and other potential methods, Dev built the very first Insect Eavesdropper.

Can you summarize what the Insect Eavesdropper does and how it works?

The Insect Eavesdropper is a contact microphone strategically clipped to or stuck on a plant. A minicomputer starts, stops, and saves a recording of insects chomping on the leaves, sucking on the plant, boring through its tissue, or chewing on the roots. The recording is pre-processed and the feeding “event” is extracted and then run through a machine learning algorithm for species identification. Thus far, the Insect Eavesdropper can detect, identify to species, and count insects that are directly feeding on plants.

What are the likely potential applications for the Insect Eavesdropper? Who might be the primary customers for it as a commercial product?

The Insect Eavesdropper addresses the unmet need for cost-effective and accurate digital monitoring of insects as they directly feed on crops. The technology’s potential use cases are twofold:

  1. Subscription to data, analysis, and alerts from a network of Insect Eavesdroppers continuously monitoring sentinel crops. This method mimics trapping networks or predictions from degree days in an accurate, efficient, and cost-effective way.
  2. The mobile version of the Insect Eavesdropper, termed “Rambling Eavesdropper,” which crop consultants, growers, extension folk, and researchers can use to sample crops for pests via non-destructive, efficient methods.

We highlight the Eavesdropper ecosystem below, with each type of user on the left, the sensor flow within the gray boxes, and leaving the decision making up to the better-informed stakeholder, on the left.

Flowchart running left to right. At left are a tractor logo labeled Agtech, a sweepnet labeled Consultants, and a farmer icon labeled Growers. Agtech and Consultants have arrows labeled Subscribe pointing the top row of the flowchart, starting with Sensor Network followed by Continuous Monitoring, under a header of Insect Eavesdropper. Consultants and Growers have arrows labled Purchase sensor, Alert subscription, pointing to the bottom row of the flowchart, starting with Mobile Sensor followed by Pest snapshot, under a header of Rambling Eavesdropper. The rows then converge to Analytics and Alerts, followed by an icon at end of a person with a light bulb icon. Across the top, stages are labeled Sensor deployment, Data collection, Analysis, Insight, and Ag Decisions.
The Insect Eavesdropper, a system that uses a contact microphone and minicomputer to analyze the vibrational signals of insects feeding on plants, took 1st Place in the 2023 ESA Antlion Pit, an innovation competition for entomology-related products and services. The creators of the Insect Eavesdropper envision it being used as both a sensor network for continuous monitoring or a mobile, handheld sensor for spot-checking crops for pests. (Figure courtesy of Emily Bick, Ph.D., BCE-Intern, and Dev Mehrotra)

What stage are you in now in developing and testing the Insect Eavesdropper? What challenges do you currently face?

On the hardware, Dev has led the efforts in Emily’s lab to successfully develop two prototypes for the Insect Eavesdropper and Rambling Eavesdropper. The former is a stationary version, continuously monitoring insects similar to Malaise traps or sticky cards; the latter is version that can be carried around a field, mimicking a sampling tool like a sweep net.

We received an accelerator grant from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to “unwire” the Insect Eavesdropper, using a module such as LoRa, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi for data transmission. On the software, we are building a toolkit to make the sensor more accessible to anyone, regardless of programing capability. This will allow a broad variety of potential users to independently work with the Insect Eavesdropper.

Functionally, we are formalizing the machine learning algorithms that identify species, adding to our species library, and working through density estimates based on feeding events. Additionally, we are handing the Insect Eavesdropper to researchers working across the world, trying to find the limits of the Insect Eavesdropper as well as externally validate the sensor.

How did competing in and taking 1st Place in ESA’s Antlion Pit competition advance your work on the Insect Eavesdropper?

The Antlion Pit competition helped spread the word about the Insect Eavesdropper and its potential. It was exciting to expose our idea to scrutiny across the entomology community. The Antlion Pit competition provided us with valuable feedback that will shape the Insect Eavesdropper for years to come.

For those interested in the Insect Eavesdropper, where can they learn more, and what should we be on the lookout for next from you?

To learn more, please visit www.bicklab.com/eavesdropper. If academics are interested in applying the Insect Eavesdropper to a difficult entomological problem, they should reach out to Emily at ebick@wisc.edu. If industry folks are interested in potentially licensing the method, they should reach out to Emily Bauer at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation at emily@warf.org. Everyone else should keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming publications.

The Insect Eavesdropper, a system that uses a contact microphone and minicomputer to analyze the vibrational signals of insects feeding on plants, took 1st Place in the 2023 ESA Antlion Pit, an innovation competition for entomology-related products and services. It also received an accelerator grant from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to incorporate a module for wireless data transmission.

Learn More

Insect Eavesdropper

Antlion Pit Competition, Entomological Society of America

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