This NASA award-winning robot pollinates blackberries

This NASA award-winning robot pollinates blackberries

A team of West Virginia University researchers is developing a rover to do a bee’s job.

April 24, 2018

A group of scientists from West Virginia University is developing a rover to pollinate brambles — mostly blackberries — in high tunnel and greenhouse environments.

Funded by the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), the project is a collaboration between mechanical, aerospace, computer science and electrical engineers; an entomologist; and Dr. Nicole Waterland, the sole horticulturist. The researchers retooled a rover named Cataglyphis to pollinate crops after WVU engineering students won a NASA competition with it, demonstrating its potential to explore Mars. Now, its mission is to pollinate crops, both by itself and aside humans, and the scientists will compare the data with that of bee and human pollination.

“We wanted to focus on something that needed a pollinator but had large flowers and basically had some interest that potentially this could be applied to high tunnels or other types of controlled environments later,” says Waterland, associate professor of horticulture. “We chose brambles because of the flower size and some other issues with regard to the structure of the plant. That makes them a little bit easier to work with.”

(Editor’s note: Read more about artificial pollination in the May Greenhouse Management cover story, “The drones are close.” )

Inspiration for the project

The scientists added a robotic arm to Cataglyphis, built on the four-wheeled Husky platform from Clearpath Robotics, after WVU engineering students won NASA’s Sample Robot Return Challenge with it in 2016. “They decided to use that platform to build a rover robot that then would have an arm that would have the dexterity to go and pollinate flowers, basically on a trellis system,” she says.

But having an expert team of developers on hand was not the only impetus for the team to get together and begin work on this robot. Waterland notes that as bee populations continue to decline due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the availability of bees that can pollinate crops, and ultimately the amount of available food, will decrease.

“One other thing that people don’t often think about is that bees don’t work 24/7,” Waterland says. “They have periods where they’ll be flying and they won’t, and depending upon the climate conditions, if it’s too rainy out, they won’t fly that day. That means that you don’t have a way to get your crops pollinated.”

Possible next steps

Looking ahead, Waterland foresees the scientists further developing the rover. “Right now, it’s a pollinator robot,” Waterland says. “But we’re developing the computer visualization systems, the algorithms, the GPS systems, to be able to scan the room and basically position the robot.”

One goal is to train the robot to recognize flowers by looking at flower size, position, age and other characteristics prior to pollination, Waterland says. After pollination, the next step would be to track fruit development and predict the upcoming harvest.

Additionally, Waterland says she could envision the robot as a “grower’s assistant” that can detect pest and disease issues and nutrient deficiencies.

As she continues working with the other scientists, Waterland is enthused about the intersection of agriculture and technology. “I think it’s an exciting time to be in agriculture, because we can utilize a lot of technology to make our jobs easier and also help us with production of our crops, whatever they might be,” she says. “But I think it’s also an opportunity for disciplines to cross and overlap, and hopefully make things a little bit easier going forward.”

Photo courtesy of Nicole Waterland