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Robots have joined Pa.'s war on bugs

Plus, the pasta sauce amusement park.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmasters: Colin Deppen & Tanisha Thomas

June 16, 2023
Inside this edition: Final walk, Pittsburgh pizza, missing cannon, fun factory, Boob Garden, and robots join the war on bugs. Thanks for checking in.
🏆 TEST YOURSELF: Put your news knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: I-95 disaster, budget fights, wage hike, and a political Hall of Famer.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

What year did former Gov. Tom Wolf sign a bill declaring June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” in Pennsylvania?

A. 2012
B. 2016
C. 2019
D. 2020

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth reading: Dupont in Luzerne County came together to do a final walk for beloved neighborhood dog Mellow, who was diagnosed with cancer. Lots of treats and rubs were given for a proper send-off.

» One thing worth eating: Gorilla Pies owner Ben Osher brought his Pittsburgh roots to Los Angeles where he opened a pizza shop with strong Jewish ties and something called a Pittsburgh-style pizza.

» One thing worth sharing: Philadelphia police want your help finding a 300-pound replica cannon that went missing from Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River in Philadelphia between May 27 and June 4.

» One place worth knowing: Centre Daily Times says Pennsylvania is home to the only Italian-themed amusement park in the U.S. It's DelGrosso's in Tipton and it used to be a pasta sauce factory.

» One garden worth seeing: An ambiguous art display in South Philly has passersby trying to figure out its meaning. The Boob Garden features furniture decorated with several breast plushies in a vacant lot.

Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania. The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now.
» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» How a school funding lawsuit is shaping state budget talks

» Disputes emerge as Pa. budget deadline looms

» Dems optimistic Pa. will raise its minimum wage this year

» Regulator's private meeting with casino lobbyists eyed

» Train safety bill met with resistance from industry, allies

» ACLU sues Pa. county for rejecting 2023 primary ballots

» You're invited! A free panel on Pa.'s 2023 budget process
A closeup of a spotted lanternfly.
A spotted lanternfly. (Elizabeth Robertson / Philadelphia Inquirer)

Reinforcements are coming. 

Years into Pennsylvania’s full-frontal assault on the well-dressed and highly reviled agritourist/terrorist known as the spotted lanternfly, a team at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University has built us a war machine.

It’s an autonomous robot with a wonkish demeanor — more Michael Dukakis on a tank than General Patton — and it’s been set to “extinction-level event.”

Dominic Guri, one of the students involved in the project, told PA Local that the robot, named TartanPest, is capable of destroying 30-50 lanternfly eggs in seconds and knows how to find them.

Preprogrammed with 700 photos of egg masses, the robot scans real-world environs for matches and then deploys a robotic arm with a sort of spinning Dawn kitchen brush affixed to the end. (Lanternfly pacifists, now’s the time to look away.)

Then the brush attacks the eggs, blitzing them into a powder before the whole rig rolls off at a leisurely, unrepentant pace on its “all-electric tractor” base. Alcohol is generally recommended to finish off any eggs that survive scraping. Guri said it could be added to the process.

Choosing the weapon was the easy part. (An earlier prototype used a harder wire brush that proved too effective, potentially harming the trees.) It’s the robot’s AI-fueled search function, allowing it to find eggs without human intervention, that proved the most challenging.

Then there’s mobility. TartanPest was made for the 2023 Farm Robotics Challenge hosted by Farm-ng, a California-based robotics company, and incorporated a Farm-ng tractor as its means of conveyance, per the competition’s guidelines.

But Guri said this is where things could get really weird.

While the tractor is great for navigating more predictable environments — think level and flat orchards and farms — really bringing the fight to the lanternfly’s doorstep might require some legs.

“So if you’re going off into more unstructured environments, then you need something like the Boston Dynamics four-legged robots,” Guri said. Can you imagine an army of these parkouring their way through the woods of Pennsylvania, a blur of dishwashing tools and successful bug-cop bounties? Guri said it’s doable.

“Our payload is the infrastructure, driven by AI, that is able to recognize these egg masses and destroy them. We think it could be put on pretty much any compatible mobile system.”

A robot arm using a brush to clear spotted lanternfly egg masses from a tree.
The TartanPest robot in action. (Via CMU's School of Computer Science)
For now, though, the process is still in the early stages. Commercial viability was considered for the Farm-ng competition, but the robot isn’t rolling out en masse just yet. And Guri is fine if it never does.

“I think if this specific instance of robotics working on invasive species is not commercially viable, that’s OK. We have to start somewhere,” he said. “We have to get people thinking this way for other roboticists to jump in. Right? The iPhone wasn’t the first phone.”

The implications are significant for Pennsylvania, no stranger to invasive pests. It's also the state where the spotted lanternfly scourge began, likely with an Obama-era cut-stone shipment that arrived in Berks County from overseas.

“It’s a day you don’t forget,” Dana Rhodes, of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, told Smithsonian Magazine, recalling September 22, 2014. That was the day the first spotted lanternfly was found here.

In the years since, officials repeatedly have urged Pennsylvanians to take up arms against the bugs, and many of you have, even gamifying the action with “squishathons” and competitive apps.

Harriet Campbell, a retiree in Montgomery County, amassed an astounding 13,000-plus confirmed kills on the Squishr app with her trusty flyswatter, telling PA Local: “I had recently retired and [the lanternflies] were driving me crazy. And so, you know, I just started whacking them. And then it became sort of an OCD thing and a passion.”

Others inadvisably took a witches’ brew of chemicals to their yards.

Brian Walsh, a spotted lanternfly expert with Penn State Extension, told The Atlantic last year of Pennsylvanians running propane torches up and down the trunks of their trees, dousing plant life with kerosene, engine-starting fluid, and oven cleaner. Guri noted TartanPest avoids such collateral damage.

Lanternflies are hitting their stride this time of year, reaching full adulthood between July and December, and Pennsylvania's infestation is rapidly reaching other states. (Here’s a map.) A mild winter means they could also be back in greater numbers in the coming months.

So, will the egg-scraping robots and humans of the world prevail? Last year, commercial horticulture educator Sandy Feather told WESA that total eradication really isn’t in the cards at this point, with the bug hitching rides and readily expanding into new footholds.

“Much like we’re going to be living with COVID, we’re going to be living with the spotted lanternfly,” she said. “We live with Japanese beetles and spongy moths and brown marmorated stink bugs, other accidentally introduced species. This is just going to be another one.”

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"I relish stomping on them, personally. They have a satisfying crunch when they go."

—U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D., Pa.) on spotted lanternfly killing; Fetterman is backing a bill that would make more federal research of the bug possible

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
A meme, via @savthorpe, on the livestream of repair work on a collapsed portion of I-95 in Philadelphia that launched Thursday. There were lots more memes where that came from. Watch the livestream here.
A cartoon couple in bed watching a PennDOT livestream of repair work on I-95 following Sunday's collapse.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The answer is C. 

Former Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in 2019 declaring June 19 Juneteenth National Freedom Day in Pennsylvania.

“While Independence Day marks the conception of a free nation, Juneteenth is a celebration of the fulfillment of this ideal through the Emancipation Proclamation,” Wolf said in a news release.

Learn more about Juneteenth here, via Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania. The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now.
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