What do a computer scientist, an entomologist and a rangeland specialist have in common?
Although it sounds like the start to a joke, it’s actually a serious effort to help farmers in west and central Asia save millions of dollars while more effectively combating a pest that is threatening their wheat crops. The project puts a high-tech spin on an agricultural problem by using mobile technology and cloud computing for better management of the devastating pests.
Computer science professor, Bechir Hamdaoui, is collaborating with OSU professor Doug Johnson in rangeland ecology and management, on a project to help wheat farmers in west and central Asia.
It is an inter-disciplinary collaboration between researchers at Oregon State University and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, and funded by a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research to support food security — the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
“We would like to have an impact for these countries where wheat is very important. It's an essential part of their lives,” says Bechir Hamdaoui, of Oregon State.
Twenty million acres of wheat in parts of Asia and North Africa are threatened by the “Sunn pest,” a bug that can destroy the value of wheat. Speed in confronting this pest is essential — even minor delays in use of pesticides can cut wheat yield by 90 percent, and if just 2-5 percent of the grains have been affected, the entire lot becomes unusable for making bread.
It’s a problem that Mustapha El Bouhssini, a senior entomologist for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Morocco is passionate about.
“Because of the Sunn pest, governments treat infested wheat fields with pesticides — $150 million is spent annually on chemical control,” he says. “But it’s not just the cost that is a concern. That’s a lot of pesticide to dump in the environment. It kills the bees, and pollutes the water and the environment.”
El Bouhssini was inspired by a presentation given by Doug Johnson, an Oregon State professor of rangeland ecology and management, about research using geo-referenced photos of rangelands for environmental monitoring.
“When I heard about the OSU imaging system, I knew immediately we could use this for Sunn pests,” El Bouhssini said.
Oregon State professor and computer scientist, Bechir Hamdaoui, joined the project to develop an integrated data acquisition system that could collect and process photos from the field quickly and accurately. Smart phones or smart cameras will be used by workers in the field to capture photos with location information that are transmitted wirelessly to a remote Oregon State server. The system will automatically count the number of Sunn pests present in the fields.
“To do a count by hand you’d have to send an army of people out to the wheat fields, which is impossible,” El Bouhssini says.
With the automated system, decision makers in places like Turkey and Uzbekistan will be able to quickly find out the number of Sunn pests in their fields and spray only when conditions warrant action. The data collected for pest management can also be examined year-to-year, along with other factors like temperature and weather for prediction modeling.
In May the group met in Turkey to test out their system and train the agents working in the fields to use the equipment. It was a different experience for computer scientist, Hamdaoui, to be out in the field.
Sunn pest on wheat.
“Even though we had been told how high the wheat was and the size of the Sunn pest it was a good experience to see it for ourselves. The most important thing was to meet the agents who will be working in the field to get their input,” Hamdaoui says.
One year into a three year project, the group has many of the basic components working and the next step will be integrating all the parts, and creating a secure system for accessing the data.
But a working system is really just the beginning. The researchers expect the technology will expand to many other areas of research and management.
“Already we’ve had people talk to us about other applications such as rust on wheat,” Johnson said. “People are quite interested in this work.”