Spensa’s Cloud-Based Technology Helps Farmers Automate Pest Control
Although agriculture is an ancient endeavor requiring little more than seeds, sunlight, and water, new technologies are helping commercial growers to be more efficient and prolific than ever. Spensa Technologies, a Purdue University spinout startup, is aiming to change the way pests are managed with an automated, connected device called Z-Trap 1.
Commercially available for the first time, the Z-Trap hardware is designed to integrate with Spensa AP, the company’s agronomic platform, to allow growers and agronomists to record pest data and track larvae life from a smartphone or browser. The technology also uses data visualization to monitor pest populations geographically over time. The company said all of Spensa’s products are intended to save farmers time, money, and labor.
Spensa CEO Johnny Park, formerly a computer engineering professor, says before he began the research that eventually led to the formation of Spensa in 2009, that the closest he had come to farming was “driving down the highway next to a corn field.”
His journey into the world of agtech began in 2008, when he applied for a grant from the USDA for a project that sought to incorporate robotics and computer vision into farming. He ended up scoring $6.4 million, and he used the money to study the various challenges faced by the industry.
“I was fascinated by the opportunities agriculture presented,” Park says. “I felt it was an area where I could really make a positive impact. I got to work with industry experts who offered a vast amount of expertise.”
Back then, Park notes, it didn’t seem like there were many tech startups attempting to innovate in agriculture. Things changed dramatically, he says, after Monsanto paid $930 million to acquire Climate Corporation in 2013.
Climate Corp. underwrote weather insurance for farmers, and Forbes reported that the deal signaled Monsanto’s desire to sell data and related services to farmers who were already buying its seeds and chemicals—and the fact that the multinational paid almost a billion dollars for a startup seemed to indicate that Monsanto expected technological advances in agriculture to be big business. The deal also seemed to be an acknowledgement that pests were building a tolerance to Monsanto’s genetically modified (GMO) seeds meant to control insects.
“That woke everybody up,” Park recalls.
As part of the research he did under the 2008 USDA grant, Park hit on the notion of automating insect monitoring. Today, he says, growers hang sticky strips of tape from trees (think old-fashioned fly traps) and then send people out into the field to count the insects and record the number—and then repeat the process for hundreds of traps. And why would farmers devote so much time to such a tedious process? Because it’s hugely important, Park says.
“It tells growers where and when to apply pesticide,” he explains. “There’s a significant economic impact. Even though it’s labor-intensive, monitoring is critical.”