$1M grant will help researchers explore the use of robotic bees for crop pollination

Manoj Karkee, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, is leading a team that’s exploring the potential of robotic pollination. (WSU Photo)

Washington State University researchers are leading a team that’s exploring the use of robotic pollinators to assist fruit farmers. The project just received a three-year grant totaling nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The team is building on and adapting existing machine learning and robotics technology, including tools being developed to mechanically thin plants or pick fruit such as apples.

“This is an important project, and a lot of work, but we’re confident we’ll be able to put together all of these different pieces into a viable prototype that could be a huge help for the agriculture industry in the future,” said Manoj Karkee, the project lead and an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering and Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, in a prepared statement.

The research includes building technology to locate flower blossoms on trees growing in orchards and creating a robotic hand to perform the delicate task of pollinating the flowers. The team includes scientists from Penn State University.

A robotic pollinator could provide a “stable and efficient process” according to the WSU scientists. Researchers elsewhere have been developing flying drones and brush-wielding, wheeled robots to pollinate crops. In 2018, Walmart applied for a patent for an “unmanned vehicle” crop pollinator.

But other scientists warn that the development of mechanical bees are not a pollinating panacea and could pose “substantial ecological and moral risks.” Their concerns include the cost of the robots, their potential harm to ecosystems and biodiversity, and fears that a dependence on robot pollinators could create food insecurity.

WSU researchers are involved in multiple projects in the field of precision agriculture.

In order to pollinate their crops, farmers currently bring honey bee hives to their fields. But U.S. bee populations have been struggling since at least the mid-2000s with the rise of colony collapse disorder — and now face the threat of the deadly Asian giant hornet or “murder hornet,” which has been spotted in Washington state and British Columbia.

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