Smart traps to provide pest early warning

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Two men standing over a technical device known as a smart trap

Les Zeller (left) and Paul Kamel check the effectiveness of their smart trap design.

PHOTO: Kim McIntyre

As part of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, researchers from the University of Southern Queensland’s (USQ) National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture are working with researchers from across Australia and internationally to develop new ways to monitor for exotic pests.

While the initial focus of this work is monitoring for pests that do not yet exist in Australia, such as Russian wheat aphid, turnip moth and hessian fly, the technologies developed will also be able to be applied to endemic pests to provide control warnings and information on infestations.

The aim is to develop rapid, cost-effective technologies for surveillance of grain pests in the field, including smart spore traps – either stationary, on-ground vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – and smart insect traps using microscope cameras. Smart technologies include:

  • insect capture based on GPS or weather parameters;
  • in-field diagnostics (for example, loop mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) assays);
  • biosensors; and
  • wireless or telemetry data transmission from the field.

At USQ, engineers Les Zeller and Paul Kamel have been focusing on turnip moth and Russian wheat aphid with future work planned on hessian fly. During September and October 2015 they tested a prototype trap for turnip moth by trapping heliothis moth.

A pheromone lure is used to attract the moth, which then falls through a funnel triggering a detection by the trap. The moth falls into a chamber that is rotated into a position where a photo is taken. The image is then analysed to determine that a moth is captured and a photo is uploaded onto a website for viewing, making it possible to monitor and identify the moth from anywhere in the world.

The chamber is then rotated into an exit position where the moth is dropped into a collection bottle before the chamber is returned to the home position to await the next moth.

Mr Zeller and Mr Kamel have been testing the trap to ensure it is robust enough to handle the weather, and can successfully capture the pest and take a clear photograph. So far they are happy with the results.

They have also been working on a portable aphid trap that will incorporate the smart technology used in the smart spore traps already developed by the team. Unlike the moths, the aphids are too small to be identified using a remote photo so this trap is composed of a plate with several vials attached to a carousel. The aphids are dropped down into the vial and can then be identified using a rapid DNA analysis.

In the past, Mr Zeller and Mr Kamel have also worked with scientists to develop spore traps that can be attached to ground-based vehicles or UAVs.

“It is very much a team approach to developing the traps. Entomologists and pathologists at the South Australian Research and Development Institute are responsible for developing the lures and the identification tools,” Mr Zeller says. “Our role as engineers is to make the traps work reliably and ensure they are robust enough to handle the harsh weather in which Australian crops are grown.”

He says they have taken advantage of new technologies in building the traps, including a 3D printer at USQ, which has been used to make some of the parts.

“In the past, this activity would have taken many hours of machining. With the 3D printer we can draw up the plans and make the part within an hour, and if we need a second one that is even quicker as we already have the design.”

The traps use the mobile telephone network and solar technology for power so they can operate from remote sites and send images and data to where it can be easily accessed back at the office.

Surveillance for exotic pests is important for two major reasons. Early detection of a pest greatly increases the likelihood of control and eradication. Also, if collected using validated methods, this type of surveillance can contribute to evidence of absence and ensure Australian grain growers maintain access to a wide range of export markets. 

While developed for monitoring exotic pests, these types of traps could easily be modified to help growers and agronomists monitor for endemic pests, giving a warning of the arrival of fungal spores or insects that could trigger a control program if the crop stage and environmental conditions warranted it.

In the future, the team intends to continue testing the current traps, making modifications and improvements where necessary, and modifying trapping technologies from overseas to incorporate functionality developed within the group. There is much potential for engineering and the application of state-of-the-art technologies to meet Australia’s biosecurity threats.

More information:

Kim McIntyre,
0429 727690,


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