This Waterloo-based tech company helps cricket farmers grow insects for protein

Waterloo company Darwin AI has been recognized by a United Nations agency for its part in one of the world’s Top 10 outstanding projects.

They are part of a sustainability project developed by Aspire Food Group that uses artificial intelligence to help raise crickets as an alternative protein source.

The technology will be used in a new state-of-the-art facility opening in London, Ont. this spring.

Sheldon Fernandez, CEO of Darwin AI, joined CBC Kitchener Waterloo’s The morning edition to explain the role of their artificial intelligence software in the process.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: How are crickets normally grown and how will the use of artificial intelligence help improve that process?

Crickets are grown in an ecosystem closely related to the way they grow [in the wild]. You have outdoor farms, which you might imagine in a tropical climate, that are grown the way plants are grown.

This project is quite unique because together with Aspire Food Group we are creating a fully closed system in London, Ontario, where we are replicating the ecosystem that is ideal for growing crickets.

Where artificial intelligence is really helpful is looking at all the environmental factors such as moisture, temperature and the sound of the crickets to determine how that environment should fluctuate to maximize cricket yield.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: Why is Darwin AI entering the cricket farming industry?

We have really unique technology that allows artificial intelligence to be very reliable and deploy it in places at the edges, they say.

At Darwin AI, our primary focus is on applying artificial intelligence to manufacturing.

We have capabilities for visual inspection and viewing a lot of data and extracting irregularities or anomalies for that data.

For us it was just a really interesting extension of our technology in an area where all these interesting technologies are being developed, but applying it to living organisms has been a real challenge.

So it was just a natural extension of our technology into a project, frankly, that has such a humanitarian character. It was very appealing to us and something our entire organization is quite proud of.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: What does UN recognition mean to you?

It’s pretty important because it really shows that Canada can compete on the global stage when it comes to artificial intelligence. We often hear in Canada that we are very good at making these technologies, but not so much at commercializing them for practical purposes.

With this kind of recognition on a global scale – we were the only company in Canada and one or two in North America, the other was NASA – really shows the level of innovation coming out of the country that we can really compete with the very best in the world .

It’s pretty significant and the first time we have global recognition at this level.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: What do you think the recognition means for the advancement of this sustainable technology?

The project with Aspire Food Group is really trying to address a long-term challenge that we will face on Earth when it comes to food security.

We need to think creatively about how we’re going to feed the planet of 10 billion, 12 billion, 15 billion people. insects — [although] it’s a little unusual for us here in this part of the world – eaten by about 80 percent of the population.

So we hope it really raises the profile of both the problem and creative solutions.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: Crickets aren’t really part of our Canadian diet. What potential do you see in the domestic cricket farm industry right now?

Hopefully there will be some more acceptance around that. It raises the profile that this is actually something you can do viable and commercially.

We don’t expect people to eat crickets. There are cricket bars, it can be used in pet food, even the waste from the crickets, it’s something called frass that can be used in fertilizer.

We really hope it just raises the profile of insect farming as a viable alternative protein source. The effect that has from both an environmental and a sustainability point of view is quite large.

You see this in Canada, and we hope that a project of this scale with this kind of recognition really expands the know-how on this so that people start to see it as a viable alternative.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: How can technology like yours be used outside of cricket farming?

Where it applies to us now, think of something like manufacturing for a car or vehicle. There are people who inspect these and it is labor intensive and frankly very boring.

Artificial intelligence can really excel at getting those tasks done faster and faster and leaving the creative work to humans. The applications are very broad and this is just one of the areas we are focusing on right now.

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