AI-Powered Ear Helps Small Farmers to Detect a Dangerous Pest
How can farmers, especially small farmers, benefit from a modern technology like AI? With this question in mind, Supertrends interviewed Zeid Sinokrot, the founder and CEO of Palmear, who is developing an AI-powered tool to help small palm tree farmers detect a dangerous pest.
The red palm weevil: A global threat that is hard to detect
“The red palm weevil has become a global threat and demands a global strategy to eradicate it.”
– Jose Graziano da Silva, Head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Originally endemic to South Asia, the Red Palm Weevil (RPW) attacks 40 different types of palm trees, with the Coconut, Palm oil and Date palms being the most affected. Most of the damage is caused by the larvae, the wormlike form in the early stage of an RPW’s life cycle. RPW larvae spend their whole life inside the trunk, destroying the trees from inside.
With few natural enemies, the RPW has spread to more than 60 countries, affecting the livelihoods of nearly 50 million farmers. In 2017, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization identified the RPW as a global threat. Home to 90 percent of the world’s date palm trees, the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region has been hit particularly hard by this malicious pest.
The key to RPW is early detection to stop the RPW from growing into adult form and spreading to other trees. That’s where Sinokrot thinks AI can lend a helping ear.
AI-powered ear to help small palm tree farmers
Having studied engineering and owned palm tree farms himself, Sinokrot believes that the combination of AI, big data, and audio engineering can provide an innovative solution for detecting the RPW. RPW larvae produce a distinctive sound when chewing and crawling inside palm trees. Although the sound cannot be heard by human ears, it can be detected by acoustic sensors.
Before setting up the company Palmear, a company based out of Abu Dhabi, Sinokrot spent a year collecting data that will be used to train algorithms to recognise the precise sounds produced by RPW larvae. In 2019, Palmear produced the world’s first AI-powered system for early RPW detection. By inserting a small needle that is only 3cm in length and 3mm in diameter into the trunk of a palm tree, farmers can detect the presence of RPW larvae within seconds.
Many palm tree farmers are not exactly tech-savvy. Palmear offers a user-friendly mobile app that farmers can use to test their trees in real time. The app can also track nearby and countrywide RPW infections.
Contributing to sustainability
To prevent their trees from being infected by the RPW, palm tree farmers often use a lot of pesticides. Several times a year, they inject insecticides into the trunks of the trees, which causes serious environmental damage. In a paper published in 2019, researchers in the UAE found carcinogenic and toxic pesticide residues from dates that grown on palm trees.
If farmers can detect which trees are infected by the RPW at an early stage, they can then use pesticides only on the trees that were found to be infected. “Working with precision agriculture, farmers can reduce the usage of chemicals, as well as get higher value from their fruits,” Sinokrot told Supertrends.
Through its R&D, Palmear is also looking at possibilities for working with other crops. Sinokrot mentioned crops such as oil palm and avocado, all of which are affected by wood-boring insects.
A question of ambition
“I want to provide protection for 50 percent of all the palm trees in the world.” – Zeid Sinokrot, Supertrends expert, founder and CEO of Palmear
When asked how many trees will benefit from Palmear, Sinokrot told Supertrends that he wants to provide protection for 50 million date palm trees in the next five years, which amounts to approximately half of all the date palm trees in the world. “Do you think I am too ambitious?” he asked. Only the future can show how realistic this plan really is.
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