by Karin Oost, EIT Digital
Wild boars are a threatening problem to farmers. They destroy land and crops and cause a lot of damage. The Italian founders of Flox have seen this happening in the rural area’s of Italy where they come from and during their second year of the EIT Digital Master School studies in Sweden. They decided to come with a solution to it and got rewarded a grant of 30.000 euro to build it. In June they will launch their drone based on artificial intelligence that scare off wild boars from farmers’ fields. Farmers are waiting in line to buy this innovative product.
In their research the two EIT Digital Master School students Matteo Tadiello and Marco Moletta found that in Sweden, 7 out of ten farmers face damages caused by wild boars. Only in southern Sweden the yearly damage cost are up to 20 million euro’s. These are costs for example for, according to the Swedish University of Agriculture, harmed crops, injured plant roots, damaged farm equipment caused by holes and grooves the animals make in the fields. By exploring this phenomenon, the startup founders learned that farmers all across the world face agricultural damage from different wildlife species. Europe, The Guardian writes, has around ten million wild boars. According to a report from Sports Illustrated feral pigs in the US alone impose 1.5 billion dollar worth of damage per year. And it is getting worse: the number of wild boars is increasing. Everywhere.
Current ways to prevent wild boars to damage crops are ineffective. These could be small-scale exclusion, trapping and shooting, says the Journal of Agriculture. Shooting is a popular method of controlling wild boar populations. Building fences around agricultural fields is, say Tadiello and Moletta not effective at all: boars simply destroy these. Effective solutions in this industry therefore are highly wanted.
Though both graduates – they finished their double degree masters in November 2020 – come from Italy, and went to the same entry University in Trento, they became friends when they both had their second year of their EIT Digital Master School at the KTH University in Sweden. “We lived in the same building, we had the same classes and worked together on robotics and artificial intelligence projects”, says Moletta. Fuelled as well with the startup mentality that they say the EIT Digital Master School brings along, they were inspired to tackle actual societal problems with technology driven solutions.
In this time, two things came together. Tadiello (CPO) and Moletta (CTO) were working on a drones project and also spotted an offer of KTH Innovation that provides support to new ideas. They liked working with drones and started to think about building a startup together. The only problem was that they had not yet found a problem to solve with drones. “That is opposite to what we have learned at the EIT Digital Master School. The school taught us to start from the problem. Instead, we were looking at different problems that could be solved with drones,” laughs Tadiello.
After several iterations together and with coaches, a random sentence about wild boars in Sweden triggered the minds. “We knew about this problem occurring in Italy. That triggered our notion.” Moletta continues: “From that point we found information about the problem. We called farmers and heard that some were even quitting their profession because of these wild animals. The topic really captured our attention realising the scale of the problem and we started to identify the best approach to solve it.”
The friends believed that they can build a solution with drones that is more effective and useful than the existing methods of preventing wild boars to destroy agricultural fields.
In March 2020, KTH Innovation gave a grant of 30.000 euro to build their startup on this innovative idea. The first 5000 euro they spend on validating the problem and the market size for their business innovation. They hired a consultancy firm for this market exploration. And the market is there: the wild boar population worldwide is growing. “In the last ten year’s it has triplicated”, says Moletta. A global market potential in the agricultural industry flashes at the horizon.
In the summer of 2020, the young entrepreneurs slowly started to work on the technological side of their solution. The main part however they were occupied with finalising their master thesis. In the second year of the EIT Digital Master School, students require to do an internship and write a thesis. They both went to work at the Swedisch company Inkonova that is building drones to 3D map underground mines. Even though it was not about their wild boar problem, the technical autonomous systems part was useful for their own project.
Their knowledge on autonomous systems they acquired at school and their insights during their internship enabled them to run several tests on the technological part and developing a prototype. After the summer, they used another 15.000 euro of the grant for developing a prototype that they tested in the North part of Stockholm in November 2020. The co-founders used the last raised funding money for product development and market validation with a focus on Sweden and the rest of Europe.
All this testing results in a service to provide landowners and farmers smart virtual fences. These are created by the autonomous drones of Flox. The drones will automatically detect wild boars, fly to these boars and produce an ultrasound that scares off the wildlife species. “Essentially the drone will be patrolling the field to detect entering animals and guide these animals away from the fields. The sound is only audible for the wild boars. This is an effective way of protecting the crops – even during nights – without causing animals to suffer”, says Tadiello.
Moletta explains that they are using the technology that they have learned about at the EIT Digital Master School programme Autonomous Systems. “We are using robotics to guide the drone and Artificial Intelligence for the animal detecting. We are integrating these technologies in one system that can work in every situation. This does not exist yet. It is not that we are inventing a new technology, we are using and combining technologies to solve this particular problem.”
The technology they use can be adapted to all kinds of wild species threatening the business of farmers. “We can modify the sounds to scare off different species. Essentially you need to know which ultrasound frequency specific animals run away from. We can then finetune the drone technology to first detect the kind of animal there is and then automatically produce the ultrasound that scares the animal away.” First, they focus on to perfect the technology to detect and extrude wild boars.
They officially launched their startup called Flox in December 2020, Tadiello as CPO and Moletta as CTO. The founders included a third person, Sára Nožková, as CEO in their team to exploit the Swedish market. Tadiello and Moletta say that they have good prospects. Moletta, who also doing a PhD research on Robotics and Artifical Intelligence: “we have active interest from different farmers in Sweden. We work already together with some of our customers. “ Tadiello adds that the cofounders are at a stage where they are looking for strategic partnerships. We already started to generate revenue. We are also preparing for opening the first seed round.”
The goal is to conquer the world. Tadiello: “The aim is to start in Sweden, expand next year to the southern part of Europe. We plan to become one of the main players in the world to solve the problem of wild animals in agriculture. We use technology as a tool to create a more efficient and sustainable agriculture and allow farmers to focus on growth.”