Insect-based technologies: How buzzing is lending a hand


Insect-based technologies: How buzzing is lending a hand
Many technologists are tapping into entomology to launch new businesses.

The buzzing of insects is enough to send hair raising chills and activate our flight or fight mode.

Buzzing helps flying insects pollinate better which is crucial for sustaining our food chain. Globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops depend on animal pollinators, contributing 35 percent of global food production which can be evaluated between $235 and $577 billion.

This all means that we probably should think twice before shooing bees away. At least that’s what Khaled Bouchoucha became known for.

Lucky Tunisian bees

In 2014, Bouchoucha founded IRIS Technologies which designs and develops tech solutions to improve and control the beekeeping value chain in Tunisia through facilitating data collection and monitoring of beehives. Using IRIS tools, beekeepers can keep track of their beehives’ temperature, humidity, and weight in real time. This process is called ‘precision beekeeping’. It is intended to minimize resource consumption and maximize bees’ productivity. The startup also focuses on the marketing and branding of honey through its mentoring and training center.

Installing an IRIS electronic board in a Tunisian beehive. (Image via IRIS)

“In a world of globalization, I think that it becomes mandatory to involve technologies and innovation in agribusiness projects,” said Bouchoucha in an interview with Wamda. “We need technologies to produce more, to remotely control the processes and ensure a better brand through traceability,” he continued.

Rather than targeting individual beekeepers, IRIS tries to sell its tools to organizations interested in biodiversity and local produce, mainly because they are more interested in full packages. These packages include an electronic board for data collection, vet services, and honey quality training.The price of IRIS’s data collection and mining tools range from $180 to $419 depending on the selected services. Among the startup’s clients are the Tunisian government, Bee Preneur which is a national project, and Tunibee, a social enterprise project.

The bee decline in certain parts of the world, namely in the US and Europe makes Bouchoucha’s startup more relevant. In 2006, American beekeepers started witnessing random disappearances of bees, a phenomenon later referred to as ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CDD) which caused the disappearance of 42 percent of the U.S honeybee colonies during April 2014 and April 2015.

IRIS Technologies focuses on the marketing and branding of honey.

Although the number of bees started to rise again in the US giving possible hopes to the end of CDD, Bouchoucha believes that the intervention of technology is still key especially that the overall food production is expected to increase by around 70 percent until 2050 to sustain sufficient supply for the extra two billion people worldwide.

Flies as waste managers

Next Protein is another Tunisian startup that has its eyes on flying insects but for a different purpose. Rather than producing food, the startup is concerned about the exact opposite: the disposal of it.

Certain kinds of flies, specifically the black soldier fly larvae, have the ability to effectively consume organic waste and digest it into protein. The benefits are threefold: protein-rich larvae is later harvested and processed into a protein feed for livestock, poultry and fish, its fat gets extracted to produce biofuels, and the leftover from the waste is used as organic fertilizer.

By managing this process, Next Protein provides an environmentally sustainable solution to waste management. It is also an alternative to the traditional animal feed which depends on industrial fish and soybeans, both requiring great amounts of water, land, and feed to farm.

First regional fly farm in the KSA

Startups and small scale livestock owners are not the only ones seeing potential in this process. Saudi Arabia is on board too.

In March 2017, it was announced that Saudi Arabia will host the first fly farm in the region, starting a new industry in commercial-scale production of insect-based meals as animal feed. The decision seems to be in line with the country’s anticipated 52 percent increase in poultry production by 2018, as well as a rise in farmed fish volumes to reach one million tonnes per year.

Insect meal’s relatively limited consumption of water in comparison to soymeal and fishmeal makes the process even more viable to Saudi Arabia which faces a possible threat of losing natural water resources in 20 years.

According to Ian John Banks, the executive assistant to the CEO at Agri Protein, the company contracted to build the fly farm in KSA, the cost for fresh water per ton of soymeal amounts to $60, it goes down to $15 in the production of fishmeal and as low as $10 to produce the company’s insect meal.

“We see insect meal as a major player in the alternative protein market, that will increase its market share very rapidly over the next decade,” Banks said during an interview with Wamda.

Mimicking natural flight

Throughout history, the general trend in tech development has been creating smaller hardware with faster software. This trend persists today with more people preferring the ‘smart mini’ over the ‘bulky’. It is understandable then that insects can inspire technologists including those working at Harvard.

Elios drone (Image via Flyability website).

In 2016, Harvard dedicated a research unit to develop ‘RoboBees’ which are miniature drones about half the size of a paper clip that look and function like bees. They weigh less that one-tenth of a gram, and fly using artificial muscles. These microbots are intended to be used in crop pollination, search and rescue missions, as well as climate and environmental monitoring.

As for technologists who are aiming to fly like Adrien Briod, the cofounder of Swiss company Flyability, insects are great teachers.

Briod was fascinated by the housefly’s ability to efficiently sense and avoid obstacles and tolerate collisions, making it a nightmare to chase down a fly at home. This adaptability to fly indoors inspired the cofounder to integrate similar features in a drone, that became known as Elios, specifically designed for the inspection and exploration of inaccessible confined places. In 2015, Flyability won the $1 million first prize in the international category of the UAE’s Drones for Good competition.

On a more eccentric application, certain startups and organizations are promoting human consumption of bugs due to their high protein and mineral content. Although not widely spread, insects might become integral parts of our diet.

Feature images via Pixabay.

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