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Bayer just built a better mousetrap – to secure our food supply

By Bill Briggs, Microsoft

July 10, 2018

The well-worn wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson may seem like an odd place to start a tech story.

That is, until you look deeper at a new service from Bayer – a cloud-connected, rodent-defense system that safeguards the food we store, sell and eat.

So, back to Emerson and one of that writer’s most enduring gems: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Today, experts at Crop Science, a division of the German multinational company Bayer, have merged Emerson’s 19th century nugget with some decidedly 21st century pursuits: Microsoft Azure, including artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

“We needed to make the best connected mousetrap in the world – which is just what we did,” says Dr. Mathias Kremer, member of the Bayer Crop Science executive committee as well as head of strategy and portfolio management.

A live floor map displays connected traps at a food company.

“Our purpose is: Science for a better life,” Kremer adds. “Our work at the Environmental Science business unit involves controlling malaria, Zika, dengue – and rodents – to serve society. It’s all about fostering healthy environments where we work, where we live and where we play.”

To meet that goal, Bayer launched a new subscription service called the Rodent Monitoring System (RMS) – a wireless network of cloud-linked sensors attached to a food company’s existing traps.

The sensors broadcast their status 24/7 through radio signals, reporting rodent captures, battery life and which traps simply remain empty – a mousetrap reality about 95 percent of the time, according to Bayer.

The radio signals are beamed to Azure, which, in turn, sends RMS customers real-time notifications via texts and emails. Pest control technicians using the service can view, on their devices, a floorplan displaying the status of each trap in every room, hallway and storage area within a building or plant.

A pest control technician places a connected trap.

The result is a rapid-response system that enables companies to spot, thwart – and eventually predict – rodent incursions before they grow out of control, Kremer says.

RMS can reveal patterns showing the current status of sensitive zones inside a structure. Bayer used the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) tool from Azure Cloud Services. The company plans to next utilize Azure’s AI features to predict entry points vulnerable to rodents and spots where mouse populations may run heavier.

To date, the RMS has reduced – by up to 60 percent on average – the time needed to check traps manually, Bayer reports. At one U.S. candy factory using the RMS, a pest controller once made four monthly trips to the facility, inspecting traps for eight-plus hours during each visit. Now he visits the factory once a month and spends just two hours servicing the account.

“The pest control operator doesn’t need to look down to find the next empty trap. Now, they can look up to search for signs of rodent activity. That is now their focus,” says Michael Zimmermann, the IT lead for Digital Pest Management at Bayer.

“They can answer bigger questions. Why is the mouse there in the first place? Is there a hole in the wall? And when are they getting into the building? Is this happening at, say, 2 a.m.? They now have all of that data,” Zimmerman adds. “This truly raises the bar for food safety.”

Throughout the food chain, from farms to processing plants to retail markets, food is stored in silos, back rooms or giant warehouses. All of those spaces are attractive targets for rodents.

“Many people don’t think about food safety,” Kremer says. “We just go to the supermarket and we assume it’s safe. But food is not naturally safe. Rodents can create a huge problem.”

In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a Massachusetts candy maker to clean its manufacturing facility after finding “significant evidence of rodent activity,” including gnawed holes, nesting material and droppings “too numerous to count.” The agency warned that candy products “may have become contaminated with filth or … may have been rendered injurious to health.”

Rats and mice can carry and transmit leptospirosis, Hantavirus, plague and salmonella, among other diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In April, the FDA reported that a North Carolina farm tied to a multistate salmonella outbreak from contaminated eggs had struggled with rodent infestation. Nearly 50 people were infected across 10 states, and 11 people were hospitalized as a result.

The RMS dashboard.

On the market since October 2017, the RMS currently is used by dozens of pest management service providers, including McCloud Services, which provides integrated solutions to the food industry and other sectors in nine states.

By tapping RMS data, McCloud Services technicians are using science to help clients identify ineffective trap placements and boost defenses in areas shown to be susceptible to rodents, says Chris McCloud, president and CEO of the Illinois-based company.

“The system provides excellent benefits in discovering the ‘why’ behind rodent captures,” McCloud says. “Quick response to the sensor alert equates to a greater ability to perform root cause analysis and control any emerging pest issue. Quick action is essential for preserving food safety.”

Bayer’s Crop Science division, which also operates businesses in crop protection, seeds and nonagricultural applications, creates innovative ways to produce “high-quality” food, animal feed and renewable raw materials for a growing global population despite the planet’s limited amount of farmable land, its website states.

The RMS, a key part of that mission, also exemplifies the new direction taken by a 154-year-old company best known for selling pharmaceuticals and other products, Kremer says.

“Selling a service is a big change. But there is a big job that needs to be done,” Kremer says.

“At its heart, this service is about improving food safety – not about catching a mouse.”

All images courtesy of Bayer.

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