News — April 24, 2012 at 6:04 am

Bug sensor earns UCR professor $300,000 prize

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Courtesy of UCR Todau

Computer Science and Engineering Professor Eamonn Keogh has been awarded $300,000 to help support his creation of a wireless bug sensor that can help protect food crops from natural pests and insects. Keogh won the first place prize in a competition hosted by the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project. The sensor is able to detect and classify any insect that flies through an opening and will then transmit data to farmers who can determine where to concentrate their pesticide treatments.

The sensors operate by detecting the speed and wing beats of flying insects, which in turn reveal the species and gender of the insect. “This method allows farmers a more targeted approach than mass intervention, reducing costs for labor and pesticides,” stated the Vodafone Americas Foundation’s website.

Keogh has noted that wide-scale implementation of the sensors can keep track of massive amounts of data and reveal trends in the movement patterns of insects. “Given the importance of insects in human affairs, it is somewhat surprising that computer science has not had a larger impact in entomology. About five years ago, I decided that someone in computer science needed to lead the charge, and to take the power of computer science to entomology,” stated Keogh in an interview with the Highlander.

Keogh hopes that his team’s research will help shine light on the issue of insect invasion on healthy food crops—a matter that many farmers around the world must deal with every day. Prosperous places like the United States have been depending on the use of pesticides to keep the pest population under control; however, many developing countries cannot afford to use pesticides on their crops. As such, the cost-saving potential of the sensors could help promote more successful farming in developing countries where farmers would benefit the most from the technology.

Daniel Liao, a UCR alumnus in mechanical engineering, expressed his intrigue with the invention but identified an area of concern: the small triangular opening in which insects must pass through in order to be detected. “In order for the device to detect the species of the insects, the insects must go through the opening. The downside to that is the price in order to produce a large enough device to cover the many acres of crops,” stated Liao.

Keogh admits that perfecting the wireless bug sensor will not be an easy task. “We are building simple low cost sensors [so] we can get accurate counts of flying insects in real-time. This information can be used by health care workers to plan interventions to kill mosquitoes (for malaria), or by farmers to control crop pests (for agriculture),” noted Keogh. “This is a very hard problem; there are 3,528 different species of mosquitoes alone. Only some moths cause problems for agriculture, but there are 150-250,000 species of moths.”

The weeks leading up to Vodafone’s phone call were a difficult and exciting time for Keogh, who stated that he would often look at his office phone in anxiety. “I spend the full day in my office trying to work, but really looking at the phone out of the corner of my eye. At about 4:00 p.m. the phone rang, and they told me I won. I tried to play it cool on the phone, but as soon as I hung up, I shouted ‘yes!’ so loud [that] people in adjacent offices came running to see what was happening,” said Keogh.

Keogh and his fellow award winners convened at Washington D.C. last week to receive their awards at the Global Philanthropy Forum.

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