Detecting crop disease in the palm of your hand

Detecting crop disease invisible to the naked eye could soon be a reality for UK farmers, thanks to the development of an innovative handheld imaging device, the Fotenix Echo. The palm-sized device, from diagnostics company Fotenix, uses light across and beyond the visible spectrum to enable the identification of plant stress.

Recent trials have shown that Echo can successfully identify the presence of disease in wheat and will now be refined for launch into the agricultural market for use by breeders, agronomists and farmers. Founder of Fotenix, Charles Veys, said: “We have been entertaining the idea for some time, in fact, our first prototype was in this form. However, the data quality was never good enough, so the system didn’t make it to the catalog.”

“In this incarnation, the Echo had really only been trialed internally and needed development on user ergonomics and mode of operation in an end-user setting. Enabling crop diagnostics will provide early detection of disease, mitigate its impact on crop health, and inform protection regimes to safeguard yield. We are delighted that the trials went so well and look forward to bringing this to market very soon.”

The trial and evaluation work was conducted by agri-tech innovation center Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), with support from Rothamsted Research as part of the RTO Grant Support Scheme operated by Innovate UK EDGE. The scheme enables SMEs to apply for grants of up to £15,000 to access services offered by Research & Technology Organisations (RTOs) and the UK’s Catapult network and is aimed at businesses looking to grow and scale through innovation.

In this case, funding supported the delivery of two trials, with plant material and sample scans provided to Fotenix for evaluation. In parallel, the trials were also benchmarked using the established Fotenix Delta Crop Information Platform, which currently informs global crop breeding operations.

The CHAP team then provided crucial information on the ergonomics and usability of the device. Results showed that the Echo has potential for various applications in agriculture, extending laboratory capabilities into the field in a cost-effective and simple package.

Innovation Technical Lead at CHAP, Dr. Alex McCormack, said: “We’ve worked closely with Charles over the past few years, assisting him in navigating the UK’s funding and innovation landscape, enabling his business to grow and develop throughout that journey. This grant scheme offered Fotenix the next step up. Working with Innovate UK EDGE, Fotenix, and pathologists at our partner Rothamsted Research, we were able to provide impartial trials and user evaluation to help develop the Echo prototype.

“Accelerating and catalyzing innovation in this way is key to our mission as an agri-tech center, so assisting in projects like this is really exciting for not only for us but also the arable industry as a whole. The technology is out there now, but it’s just identifying it and making it accessible to those who need it to solve a problem, in this case, breeders, farmers, and growers.”

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