To Bee or Not to Bee

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Insects that spread pollen to fruiting plants are in trouble. A possible alternative: Robots.
What’s new: Farmers in Australia and the U.S. are using robots from Israeli startup Arugga Farming to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes, The Wall Street Journal reported.
How it works: The system is designed for growing tomatoes, which self-pollinate when their pollen is stirred up by the beating of insect wings. Robots equipped with cameras, vision algorithms, and air compressors wheel themselves between rows of plants. When they recognize a flower that’s ready to produce fruit, they blast it with air to release its pollen.

  • The company trained the computer vision system using tens of thousands of photos of tomato flowers shot in multiple greenhouses under a variety of lighting conditions.
  • U.S. greenhouse grower AppHarvest tested the system. It found that the plants pollinated by robots produced a harvest comparable to those pollinated by bumblebees and much larger than those pollinated by hand.
  • Costa Group Holdings, an Australian farming company that grows crops in vertical greenhouse arrays, recently tested two of the robots in a 25-acre facility. It plans to add more, aiming for a total of around 30.

Behind the news: A number of other companies are using AI-enabled robots to pollinate plants. Edete Precision Technologies has had success with almonds, and Bumblebee AI hopes to pollinate avocados, kiwis, and cocoa. Developed at West Virginia University, a robot called BrambleBee aims to pollinate blackberries, raspberries, and brambleberries.
Why it matters: Robotic pollinators may prove to be an important technology outside of greenhouses. Climate change and habitat loss are ravaging Earth’s insect populations including bees. Meanwhile, such machines could be helpful to farmers: Bees are expensive to rent, they can spread plant diseases, and importing them is restricted in places such as Australia.
We’re thinking: These robots are sure to generate a buzz.

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