News Article

Startup with roots at UD provides chemical-free pest control for strawberry farmers
Date: Dec 01, 2020
Author: Karen Roberts
Source: University Press Release ( click here to go to the source)

Featured firm in this article: TRIC Robotics LLC of Newark, DE

Adam Stager started keeping an idea journal in the fourth grade. It was where he would jot down business ideas, doodle ways to improve random household items and generally channel his creative juices.

"I was always thinking, ‘This is a pencil, but it could be a better pencil if…,'" said Stager, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Delaware's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).

Stager also is the founder of TRIC Robotics, a startup company focused on offering strawberry farmers a viable alternative to pesticides.

The TRIC Robotics team, which includes several UD undergraduate students, has developed an autonomous field robot with the ability to travel up and down the rows in a strawberry field, delivering nonchemical pest protection right to the strawberries themselves. The field robot leverages UVC light technology, developed by USDA scientists.

"Think of it like a car-sized Roomba, but instead of cleaning carpets, it carries a special UVC light that kills pests originally targeted by pesticides," said Vishnu Somasundaram, a biomedical engineering major and one of the first undergraduate students to join the project.

Some pesticides are harmful to the environment and toxic. Predicting when in the growing cycle pests will appear is difficult, making regular treatment necessary and costly for farmers.

UVC light comes from sunlight, and it disrupts a living organism's DNA. The more complex the organism, the more time this disruption takes. In the environment, UVC light is blocked by the ozone layer. Targeted at strawberry plants, UVC light can kill pests in as little as 15 seconds of treatment. It has been shown to be as effective as pesticides on the three largest yield reducers for strawberries: gray mold, powdery mildew and two-spotted spider mites.

The TRIC team has preprogrammed the robot to operate at night, keeping humans and animals out of harm's way and freeing up the agricultural land during the day. Software integrated into the robot's design provides farmers with eyes on each berry, helping them reliably predict how many strawberries their crops will yield and when — a bonus for supermarkets and other sellers seeking a sustainable supply of the perennially popular fruit for their customers

Like many startups with humble beginnings, the TRIC Robotics team operates out of Stager's home in Newark, Delaware. He describes the workspace as very "out-of-the-garage startup" with students sprawled at computers in the basement or working side-by-side on the robot in the adjacent garage.
While Stager is the big thinker behind the idea, he said that teamwork has been critical to the startup's success.
"With robotics you need lots of different brains to make things work," said Stager. "I can offer guidance, but it is the skills of every individual that make it possible. I need Ansel, an undergrad from Bard College, who is much better at programming than me, and Jake who is better at design, and so on."
Early products by TRIC Robotics included smaller robots for disaster management and environmental data collection, but Stager quickly realized the margin for repeat business was small. UD support, training in entrepreneurship, and conversations with experts facilitated by UD's Horn Entrepreneurship helped Stager shift the company's focus toward agriculture. Collaborations with CANR faculty allowed him to test the robots in cornfields before switching to strawberries.
Recently, UD undergrads Jake Lubsen and Andrew Slomski have worked to perfect the robot frame, while Trevor Foresta and Will Cantera developed software to ensure the robot performs predictably in the field and collects the proper data. Meanwhile, Joe Lockhard and Vishnu Somasundaram designed and manufactured specialized reflectors to deliver equal amounts of the UVC light to all strawberries in the field. The students also developed a safety system to turn off the UVC light in the presence of people. Srinath Venkatesh, the team's digital media manager, created the company's website and chronicles the team's progress on social media.
Earlier this spring and summer, the team tested the treatment's effectiveness in strawberry fields at Fifer Orchards, Delaware's largest commercial strawberry grower, in Camden-Wyoming, and at UD's campus in Georgetown, Delaware. Pilot testing at Fifer showed positive results with similar yields between chemical and UV-C treatment. In Georgetown, the team ended up trimming back many of the plants to make the field manageable with fewer people due to the coronavirus pandemic. A third East Coast pilot project at the USDA site in Kearneysville, West Virginia, is still up and running, and planning is currently underway for five additional pilot projects in 2021 — two of them located on organic farms in California.
"I think automation can really change the way we do things," said Stager.