Today’s Solutions: November 30, 2021

Colony collapse disorder, harmful pesticides, and climate change have all contributed to the global decline of bee species. This is not only an urgent biodiversity problem but also an issue for our global food systems since a lot of our crops rely on these little insects for pollination. Produce that grows in greenhouses or indoor vertical farms also needs to be pollinated, but since neither of those environments is suitable for bees, there’s a need for an alternative solution.

Now that’s exactly the type of solution scientists at West Virginia University (WVU) have been working on. With funding from the US Department of Agriculture, the team developed the StickBug—a six-armed robot that can help pollinate crops in greenhouses and indoor farms.

Assisted by computer vision algorithms, the robot can map out indoor environments and learn where flowers on the plans are and spot which ones need to be pollinated. It then uses its arms to pollinate those flowers. “There could potentially be coordinated action” using multiple arms, says Yu Gu, an engineering professor at WVU leading the team behind the project. “Say if a flower is behind a branch, it could have one arm move the branch away, and another pollinate.”

Overall, the StickBug project aims to improve agriculture by advancing robotics in the field. One of the robotic challenges with pollinating relates to speeding up the process so it can meet production requirements. Previous robots that were designed to perform the same task had only one arm. Equipped with six appendages, StickBug can pollinate significantly more flowers at the same time.

The team also plans to work more closely with growers, who may not have specialized knowledge of robots, reports Fast Company. As such, Gu and his colleagues want to design a low-cost robot that growers can easily use for assistance. According to Gu, robotic and insect pollinators are both needed to sustain our food systems. “We’re not interested in taking away bees’ jobs, and we want bees to be happy,” he says. “But there’s also room for technological innovation. They can coexist, and they can all bring benefits to society.”

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