This Waterloo tech company helps cricket farmers grow bugs for protein

Waterloo company Darwin AI was recognized by the United Nations for playing a part in one of the world's Top 10 outstanding projects. They partnered with Aspire Food Group to use artificial intelligence to help farm crickets as a source of protein.

"We need to start thinking creatively about how we're going to feed the planet..."

Crickets grown in Windsor, N.S. at Midgard Insect Farm as used as protein in pet food. (Megan Mahon/Communications Nova Scotia)

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

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

The tech will be used at a new state of the art facility set to open 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 farmed and how will using artificial intelligence help improve that process?

Crickets are farmed in an ecosystem that closely mirrors the way they grow [in the wild]. You have outdoor farms, that you might envision in a tropical climate that are grown the way plants are grown.

This project is quite unique because we are creating along with Aspire Food Group, an entire enclosed system in London, Ontario, where we're replicating the ecosystem that is ideal to grow crickets. 

Where artificial intelligence is really useful is looking at all the environmental factors such as moisture, temperature, the sounds of the crickets to determine how that environment has to be fluctuated to maximize cricket yield.

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

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

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

We have capabilities around visual inspection and looking at 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 that is developing all these interesting technologies, but applying them to living organisms was a real challenge.

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

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: What is the recognition from the UN mean for you? 

It's quite significant because it really shows that Canada can compete at the global stage when it comes to artificial intelligence. We often hear, in Canada that we're really great at creating these technologies, but not so much commercializing them to practical ends.

Having this type of recognition on the global scale — we were the only company in Canada and one or two in North America, the other one was NASA — really shows the level of innovation that's coming from the country and that we really can compete with the very best in the world. 

It's quite significant and the first time we've got global recognition on 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're going to have in the planet when it comes to food security.

We need to start thinking creatively about how we're going to feed the planet that has 10 billion, 12 billion, 15 billion people. Insects — [although] it's a bit unusual for us here in this part of the world — are eaten by about 80 per cent of the population.

So we're hoping that it really raises the profile both for the problem as well as creative solutions.

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

Hopefully there's a little more acceptance around that. It raises the profile that this is actually something that  you can do viably and commercially.

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

We really hope it just raising the profile for insect agriculture as a viable alternative source of protein. The effect that has both from an environmental point of view and the sustainability point of view, are quite significant.

You're seeing pockets of this in Canada, and we're hoping that a project of this scale with this type of recognition really increases the know-how around this so that people start considering it as a as a viable alternative. 

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: How could tech like yours be used beyond farming crickets? 

Where it applies right now for us is, think of something like manufacturing for a car or vehicle. There are human beings that inspect these and it's laborious and it's quite frankly, very boring.

Artificial intelligence can really excel at doing those jobs faster and quicker and leave the creative work to human beings. The applications are very broad and this is just one of the areas that we're choosing to focus on right now.