Technical Machine: IoT Enabler

What do insects and sensors have in common? Quite a lot at Tiny Farms, which is using sensor boards from Technical Machine to grow its contract cricket-farming enterprise.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mar 11, 2015

Ask any foodie worth her salt what the next big thing in food will be, and she might tell you it's something small: insects. Long used as a food source in other cultures, insects are now coming into vogue in the United States among diners who are at once environmentally conscious and adventurous.

Currently, the meat industry produces 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is also a major user of water.

The Tessel 2 (phot courtesy Technical Machine)
According to a recent FAO report, in the United States, it takes 22 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of beef, whereas one pound of crickets requires as little as 3.7 pounds of feed and only about a gallon of water. What's more, the amount of land needed to grow conventional livestock far outweighs that required for insects, which are generally grown indoors and can easily be produced in cities, close to transportation infrastructure.

What's not sustainable about insect farming today, however, is the cost. For example, to make insect protein versatile and usable in a range of recipes, some companies are selling cricket flour. At $20 for a one-pound bag, bug flour is unlikely to ever cross the economic divide, even if it crosses a social one. But Tiny Farms, an Oakland, Calif.-based startup, is using IoT technology to innovate and scale up bug farming in order to boost efficiencies and lower costs.

Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, Tiny Farms' CEO and co-founder, is using his background in programming, sensor networks and data security to marry technology with industrial insect production. Tiny Farms is still in startup mode, but Imrie-Situnayake plans to grow the company through a contract agriculture model, whereby insect growers enter into a contractual agreement with Tiny Farms to sell their product to the company at a set price, in exchange for receiving help from Tiny Farms in establishing and expanding their insect-growing operation.

"We're acting as the hub for a network of producers," Imrie-Situnayake says. Tiny Farms provides its contract growers with a set of sensors that are placed inside the manufactured cricket habitats in which the insects are grown. Tracking variables such as temperature and humidity allows the farmers to closely monitor the habitats and ensure that the environment is conducive to high output. But Tiny Farm's larger goal is to leverage this visibility to improve the operations and yields at all of its contracted farms, in order to increase productivity across the entire network of farmers.

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