Western Virginia University Engineers Turn to Robots for Pollination

This is like a less scary version of the Black Mirror episode about robotic bees (Season 3 finale). Hopefully, these pollination robots…

Cabe Atwell
2 years agoRobotics

This is like a less scary version of the Black Mirror episode about robotic bees (Season 3 finale). Hopefully, these pollination robots won’t try to de-pollinate the human race.

It’s no secret bees help pollinate crops; in fact, farmers routinely hire beekeepers to help with crop yields and quality. Some plants, such as apples, broccoli, melons and other fruits are 90% reliant on bee pollination for growth but what happens when the bee population declines or is eradicated all together? Engineers from Western Virginia University may have the answer with the BrambleBee robot pollinator.

The robot employs some of the same technology found in autonomous vehicles, such as LIDAR, which it uses to map the space in its vicinity for navigation (in this case, greenhouses) and to detect various plants. This also helps the roving pollinator plan an efficient route as it pollinates each plant. Computer vision algorithms collect data from the plants- their position, size, type, condition- and use the information as a guide for efficient pollination.

Once BrambleBee determines the flowers are ready for pollination, it uses its robotic arm to gently stroke the male’s anthers using a small 3D-printed flexible brush and transfers the collected pollen to the female’s pistils. The robot stores the data of the plants it has pollinated, allowing it to make multiple runs as the plants mature.

While BrambleBee is an excellent idea as a greenhouse pollination platform, it’s still under development and has a long way to go before it’s deployed. For example, it has trouble identifying flowers on plants that have been clustered together or those that are arranged in different angles so the robot can’t approach them correctly.

To help with that issue, the engineers mounted a camera on the robotic arm to search for QR codes placed on the plants that need pollination. They hope to refine BrambleBee’s detection system by autumn of this year so it won’t rely on those QR codes and scale the platform for full-time greenhouse work sometime in the future.

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