Detecting disease before impact is felt

By Country News

A desire to help farmers reduce crop losses has led one scientist to create an innovative device that can detect fungal diseases in the air.

University of Sydney PhD student Lewis Collins is working to build a sampling instrument that can be placed on drones and tractors or in the field.

A recipient of a recent Science and Innovation Award, the devices are able to detect airborne fungal disease before plants are infected, allowing farmers to protect their crops more effectively.

‘‘The beauty of what we’ve done is we’ve designed the hardware to accept almost any airborne spore,’’ Mr Collins said.

‘‘But the magic comes up in the software where we’re using machine-learning algorithms to actually categorise those spores.

‘‘So as long as we have examples of the disease, we can train our network to pick up anything.’’

With a background in healthcare, biomedical engineering and mechatronics, Mr Collins said he had always been interested in automating processes.

His background is in healthcare, biomedical engineering and mechatronics.

‘‘Both my parents are from farming, agricultural backgrounds and so it was just a really cool marriage of the two,’’ Mr Collins said.

While doing his PhD, Mr Collins and his supervisors decided they wanted to find a way to detect diseases in the air.

‘‘We have no idea where and how airborne diseases move,’’ Mr Collins said.

‘‘This is a problem both in agricultural crops but also in hospitals.’’

While the project was initially designed to target wheat rust, Mr Collins hopes to apply the technology to other grain crops including barley and oats.

‘‘We just got accepted into Blackbird’s Startmate program, which is probably the biggest start-up incubator in Australia,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re trying to bring this technology out of the lab and out of academia into commercial, real-world use.’’