Ecoutons nos palmiers….
It’s hardly a secret that trees are vitally important to life on Earth. Whether we eat from them, make use of their bark and leaves, or simply rely on them to provide air we can breathe, we need trees – and healthy trees at that.
So what if you could assess the health of a tree just by listening to it ? That’s what tech developed by Imperial College London spinout Permia Sensing does.
This startup’s acoustic sensor filters out background noise so that it can focus on the otherwise imperceptible sounds of the tree itself. Yes, this is a real thing : recent research found trees ‘cry’ when they lack water or are injured.
But in this case, Permia Sensing’s ‘stethoscope for trees’ is listening for early signs of red palm weevils infesting palm trees. These insects and their larvae are bad news for farmers growing palm trees – they can destroy a significant chunk of their crop if left to thrive.
“What the sensor permits is early detection, because you can listen into a tree and hear the larvae crunching the tree from the inside,” says CEO Efrem de Paiva.
After letting it do its thing, the farmer connects the device to their smartphone to download data, which can then be uploaded to Permia Sensing’s cloud software for analysis.
“Imagine you’re on a very big farm in Sri Lanka, maybe the connectivity is not so good – you’re not going to have 3G, 4G or 5G. So it’s good to store the data on your phone and then when you’re connected it sends it to the cloud,” explains de Paiva.
One of Permia Sensing’s sensors
Coconut palm tree farmers in Sri Lanka are Permia Sensing’s first focus, but there are opportunities to expand into wider Southeast Asia and other countries around the world, including where de Paiva grew up, Brazil.
And while its first product is the acoustic sensor, the startup plans to expand to incorporate data from satellite imagery, introduce more IoT hardware, and utilise robotics and artificial intelligence to help plantation operators monitor the health of their trees and forecast their yield.
Permia Sensing’s goal is “to sustainably increase the productivity of palm plantations.” These plantations produce coconuts, palm oil, and dates.
Hold up… yes, I just said palm oil. This product of palm trees–used in a wide range of food, cosmetics, and toiletries–has a long history of controversy and is often linked to reports of deforestation and abusive labour practices.
Permia Sensing’s role here can be a positive one, de Paiva says. By combatting the red palm weevil, plantation owners have the option to increase their yield through increased productivity rather than expanding their land.
“By using technology, you are also potentially making the supply chain more transparent, and you’re bringing more wealth and income for all the stakeholders in the supply chain,” he says. “So we believe that by doing this we’re offering an option for the whole supply chain to benefit.”
Such transparency will depend on how the data is used by the players in the supply chain, but just having the tech is a start.
Permia Sensing has its roots in the research of its cofounders, Professor Thrishantha Nanayakkara (the startup’s R&D director) and Dr. Hasitha Wegiriya (its CTO). De Paiva says Wegiriya is also an owner of a coconut palm tree plantation in Sri Lanka, which would appear to count as twice as much domain expertise as your typical founder !
As CEO, de Paiva brings startup experience, having worked in VC in Brazil before moving on to work in sales and UX design for startups on both sides of the Atlantic. Company chairman Stephen Hampson also has a background in VC and venture building.
Permia Sensing is currently trialling its offering with farms in Sri Lanka. Once its business model is firmed up off the back of these trials, the startup will hire a sales team.
The startup then plans to grow its offering by expanding its sensor to handle broader health monitoring for palm trees, before offering a wider range of services for its customers through satellite imagery and robotics.
While de Paiva doesn’t go into details about the startup’s plans for robotics, the startup’s cofounders are both specialists in the field, so it’s a natural extension of what they’re doing now.
De Paiva says that the new generation of coconut palm tree farmers have a desire to modernise their work. The startup sees an opportunity to use robotics to not replace humans in the workforce, but to empower them and make their work easier and more productive.