A new robot inspired by bees can autonomously pollinate some types of plants.
There is a great deal of concern among apiarists about the rate at which honey bees are disappearing due to colony collapse disorder. Bees are the primary pollinators of a huge variety of crops. This means their disappearance poses serious risks for agriculture and food production. Furthermore, it is estimated that thirty-five percent of global crop production, worth approximately 577 billion a year, relies on pollination by bees. A group of engineers at West Virginia University’s Statler College have recently come up with a solution. They have developed an autonomous robot prototype, called BrambleBee, which can pollinate plants.
The BrambleBee is equipped with localisation and mapping algorithms. The robot detects flower clusters using an on-board camera. Additionally, after mapping plant locations, the BrambleBee choses where to pollinate by balancing the number of reachable flower clusters that are ready for pollination with the distance needed to drive to pollinate them. Once in place, the robot scans the plant and uses a robotic arm to apply the pollen. The pollination mechanism is designed to mimic the action of bees. It is also able to distribute pollen into the pistils without damaging the flowers.
BrambleBee joins other innovations that seek to automate agriculture. These include AI that can predict crop yields and a robotic cucumber harvester. According to researcher Yu Gu, “The project allows the development of a complex autonomous robotics system that can work in a common agriculture setting.” The robot is currently limited to pollinating bramble plants (blackberry, raspberry, etc.) in a greenhouse environment. However, the researchers are working on adapting BrambleBee to other environments.