Pollination is a critical action in orchard crops, but concerns over declining bee populations has researchers looking elsewhere — even to robots. A new project at Washington State University could make significant progress on the concept.
USDA is providing nearly $1 million in grant funding through the Washington State Department of Agriculture to explore automation for pollination. The project will be led by Manoj Karkee, an associate professor at WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering and Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems.
The three-year grant will include scientists from Penn State University.
Karkee explains that “pollination is one of the most important operations in orchards every year. Crops like apples, cherries, pears and many more require pollination.”
Currently, honeybee hives are placed in orchards to do that work, and beekeepers move the hives to different farms and work with a range of crops. However, pollinator populations are decreasing, and robotic pollination be a substitute.
The project will involve three steps:
• Camera and machine learning systems. Researchers must teach machines to detect and locate flower blossoms on trees in an orchard to target what needs to be pollinated.
• Review of models for blossom development. This will determine the best stage to pollinate a given crop and a given location.
• Robotic hand and arm development. The hand and arm will spread pollen that will work with the first step, and be tested in a lab and in the field.
Not starting from scratch
Karkee explains that the team has been working on robotics in agriculture for more than a decade and already has systems that detect flowers for a robotic thinning system. “We just need to adapt that to work with this project,” he says.
There’s also been work on robotic hands and arms that can pick crops like apples, which researchers plan to adapt to pollinating blossoms. The goal is to demonstrate capability for robotics to do this work, not build a full-scale machine.
Adds Karkee: “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.”
The project includes horticulturists from both WSU and Penn State, as well as engineering faculty from both universities. In addition to Karkee, the WSU team includes Changki Mo (mechanical engineering), Matt Whiting (horticulture) and Qin Zhang (biological systems engineering). The Penn State team includes Jim Schupp (horticulture) and Long He (biological systems engineering).