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Can Robotic Pollinators Play a Role in Vertical Farming?

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Robotic bees polinating

The vertical farming market is poised for exponential growth, expanding from a valuation of 5.6 billion dollars to an anticipated 35 billion by 2032 — nearly a sevenfold increase within a decade. To capitalize on this burgeoning market, innovation and the utilization of advanced technologies are essential. Robotic pollinators, or ‘robotic bees,' stand out as potentially transformative in this arena.

But to understand the potential robotic pollinators hold for vertical farming, we must have a clear idea about what these categories mean. We will, therefore, start the discussion with brief overviews of what vertical farming and robotic pollinators mean.

What is Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming hints towards an agricultural method/technique to grow crops in vertically stacked layers. Traditional agriculture has been horizontal, with crops cultivated on farmland. However, with the area of fertile land on this planet being a constant and global population increasing consistently, vertical farming has emerged as a solution, mostly carried out in a controlled environment with techniques such as aquaponics, hydroponics, and aeroponics that make the necessity of soil in farming redundant. 

These days, we can find vertical farms in buildings, on shipping containers, and even under the ground, known as Deep Farms. 

The advantages of vertical farming are many. It is more efficient, weather-resistant, and a healthier alternative from the perspective of environmental conservation efforts. It does not require deforestation, often a precursor to traditional farming cycles, and nor does it require many conventional farming activities with high carbon footprints, including plowing, planting, and harvesting by farm machinery. 

The concept of vertical farming was pioneered by Dickson Despommier in 1999, marking the beginning of what is now an emerging application area. It is this foundation that sets vertical farming on its path to evolve and diversify in the coming years. 

Click here to learn more about vertical farming.

What are Robotic Pollinators?

In short, robotic pollinators resemble oversized bees equipped with wheels and an arm. This technological innovation is designed to address the pressing issue of natural pollinator scarcity, such as that of bees, which poses a significant challenge to global food production. In response to this challenge, researchers at West Virginia University devised a robotic pollinator.

The model created by Yu Gu, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the university, features a six-armed robot intended to assist with pollination in greenhouse environments, accommodating a variety of crops. The purpose of robotic pollinators is twofold.

Their immediate purpose is to perform the repetitive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive tasks of flower inspection, mapping, pollination, and development tracking, freeing up farmers to concentrate on planting, irrigation, and pest control.

For the long term, the robotic pollinator aims to care for individual crops with optimized efficiency, ensure food production during periods of insect decline, and provide value-added services such as crop data tracking. Discussing the operational vision of the robotic pollinator, Yu Gu stated:

“It maps out the environment, and once the robot has a general idea of the environment, it will build up a more detailed mapping of the plants and know where the flowers are and which flower needs to be pollinated.”

Taking these capabilities into account, let's examine how robotic pollinators can contribute to vertical farming.

Robotic Pollinators Pros and Cons

Robotic pollinators have the potential to provide a variety of benefits for the agriculture industry.

By operating 24/7, robotic pollinators offer greater efficiency than humans, reducing labor costs and enhancing food yields. They can work continuously, day and night, even in harsh conditions. Moreover, their ability to collect and analyze crop data gives growers precise control over their cultivation, enabling more informed agricultural decisions.

The same technological ingenuity that allows these robotic pollinators to function autonomously enables their customization for specific agricultural tasks. They can be scaled up or down depending on the crop size and the pollination needs in farms. These machines can also pollinate specific plants or areas more precisely than in traditional ways, improving resource efficiency and food yields.

Besides pollinating, these robots can also measure air, water, and other environmental factors in real time, contributing to safer and more sustainable farming.

By eliminating the need for pesticides or other toxins, robotic pollinators appeal to farmers who want to reduce their environmental effects and improve their operations.

But, of course, robotic pollinators are not without issues:

  • Despite recent technological advances, robotic pollination is costly and far from being able to replace natural pollinators such as bees to fertilize crops efficiently. Not to mention, there are over 250,000 species of flowering plants on the planet, and they all interact in unique ways with pollen vectors.
  • Given that alien invasive species cause extinctions and disrupt ecosystem functions and services, robotic pollination could damage wider ecosystems.
  • Relying on a single pollinator increases vulnerability through the failure of complex technology or cyber-attacks, which, in turn, could lead to major food insecurity. Moreover, by reducing genetic diversity it can affect the ability of the flower to resist things like disease and may make them less healthy.

Vertical Farming Pollination Challenges

Vertical farming started with much fanfare. Thomas Graham, a researcher in controlled environment farming at the University of Guelph in Ontario, believed vertical farms “had the potential to contribute a meaningful amount to our diets.” Although it started with much hope and fanfare, vertical farming faced its share of challenges. These challenges included inflation, soaring energy prices, consistent demand for substantial electricity, and more. 

Many vertical farms failed to move beyond a particular set of offerings, which included only green crops, including lettuce and herbs, which required less water and could be cultivated fast, leveraging hydroponics. 

For vertical farming practices to achieve their true potential and take a meaningful shot at solving the challenges of food insecurity, they must widen the range of crops it has to offer and help produce. This expansion could not be possible without the help of pollinators. 

According to a study published by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, about 75% of the world's flowering plants and 35% of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to produce. While bees are the most prominent type of pollinators, with over 3,500 species of native bees helping to increase crop yields, pollinators also imply and include many other species, such as wasps, moths, flies, butterflies, birds, and bats. 

These natural pollinators find it difficult to do their job in vertical farming. Domesticated honey bees, one of the most popular pollinators for commercial farming, face trouble in navigating under artificial light. Pollinating by hand is also not economically viable as it takes a lot of time, effort, and cost.

How Robotic Pollinators Address These Challenges

There has been more than one way in which robotic pollinators could work. We would look at some of the real-life use cases where robo-pollinators have been deployed successfully. 

Robotic Pollinators Resembling Self-Driving Cars

These types of robotic pollinators leverage Light Detection and Ranging technology (LIDAR) to begin with. They use lasers first to create a three-dimensional map of the greenhouse to ascertain its way around. It moves through the greenhouse rows to reach as many flowers as possible with its arm and captures higher-resolution three-dimensional maps of the crops. And once it locates or identifies the flowers ready for pollination, it moves to the next phase. 

It uses a small three-dimensional printed brush of flexible polyurethane bristles on the end of its arm to stroke the blossoms gently. This results in the transferring of the pollen from the male reproductive organs, and pollination begins. The robot's memory helps it remember already pollinated plants so that it does not repeat itself and gets the job done as fast as possible.

Robotic Pollination Leveraging AI-Powered Drones

Another approach of robotic pollination has based itself on leveraging mini drones. It uses AI-powered software to direct these drones to recognize and measure vital traits of farmers. These drones fly near the plants and use camera sensors to capture the required information. And when the atmospheric conditions inside the greenhouse are optimal for pollination, the drones start disturbing the air around it. The shaken air vibrates the flowers to – eventually – shake the pollen out of it and start pollination. 

Nanorobot Pollinator

Researchers from Tampere University, Finland, have developed a type of nanorobot pollinator that works on the principle of aero-robotics based on light-responsive materials assembly. In other words, these are flying robots based on an assembly of light-sensitive materials. 

Light serves as a control mechanism for these robots, which target areas that require pollination. This method has proven effective for the precise dispersion of artificial seeds laden with pollen. Each artificial seed is equipped with a flexible actuator made of light-sensitive liquid crystal elastomers, which cause the hairs to open or close upon exposure to visible light.

The use of light also enables the robot pollinators to alter the shape of the soft robot's structure, allowing it to adapt to the force and direction of the wind. And although not yet available for mass manufacturing, this robotic technology still requires further refinement of its seed landing capabilities.

Roving Ground-Robot Pollinators: A Potential Contender in Vertical Farming Solution Space

Tech developers have also introduced ground-roving robot pollinators that move between rows of plants, emitting pulses of air to facilitate pollination. While still in a developmental phase that requires human operators to manage the robots' movement between rows via a tablet, these machines have already achieved a satisfactory level of autonomy. The developers believe that these robots could soon become effective in vertical farming setups.

The benefits of using robotic pollinators in vertical farming could be multiple. 

Natural pollinators, irrespective of their cost-effectiveness and efficiency, can spread viruses. Traditional farming often employs commercially produced bees as natural pollinators. These bees carry the risk of escaping controlled greenhouse settings and infecting wild bee populations, potentially exacerbating an already critical issue: the declining insect population, which is driven by climate change, rapid urbanization, and pesticide use.

Robotic pollinators can help stop these infections from spreading. They are also highly effective when moving around structured environments and avoiding unpredictable weather and temperature. 

Companies in Robotic Pollinator Space

Given that over 75% of the world's food crops rely, at least to some extent, on pollination by insects and other animals, companies are eagerly working on robotic pollinators, including:

1. Arugga

This company, which has raised $5.8 million to date, builds AI-powered robots that use computer vision, developed via the NVIDIA Metropolis platform, to identify flowers ready for pollination and then initiate the process by blasting air pulses at them.

While the bots' performance is on par with the bumblebees and, in some cases, better by up to 5%, it also comes with the ability to collect and analyze data along the way. 

Arugga's robots have demonstrated yield improvements of up to 20% without sacrificing quality. Its roving ground robot, Polly, works with strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, and other crops. 

Most recently, the company converted Finnish Agrifutura's 4.6-hectare greenhouse into the world's first facility to fully utilize robotic pollination technology. 

Arugga AI Farming - Autonomous Pollination Robots

2. Yamaha Motor

Yamaha Motor has long been a player in the modernization of agriculture and has been working on solutions to Japan's shrinking and aging farming population. The company has been developing industrial-use unmanned helicopters, agricultural drones, auto-guided support vehicles, robot arms, and more. 

Back in Dec. 2022, Yamaha said, “We are developing vehicles that will be immediately ready for use in pruning, pollination, fruit thinning, harvesting, and other tasks at such orchards.” A few years ago, the Japanese manufacturing company invested $10 million in Robotics Plus, which develops general-purpose UGVs and robotic pollinators, harvesters, and packing systems. 

Yamaha Motor stocks (YAMHF) are currently trading at $25, up 9.29% YTD, while paying a dividend yield of 3.79% and having a P/E (TTM) of 6.20.

3. Edete Precision

This agri-tech startup builds robotic pollinators and offers artificial pollination as a service (APaS). By supplementing wind pollination, Edete Precision boosted yields in a California pistachio orchard by 24%. The company's robotic 2BeTM pollinator performs artificial pollination by distributing closely controlled and managed minuscule pollen quantities during the blooming season. Currently focused on pistachios, Edete aims to move to almonds, cherries, and avocados.

4. HarvestX

Having raised 150 million yen to date, the Japan-based HarvestX is developing robotics and AI technologies to solve various problems existing in the agricultural industry. This includes automated pollination of strawberries by robots. 

The company has developed a machine-learning technique that uses 3D models and rendered images to generate supervised data on flower orientation. By applying a neural network, it extracts the features of bees' pollination behavior and then applies them to pollination algorithms.

自動授粉・収穫ロボットXV3によるイチゴの授粉Pollination of strawberries by Automated Pollinating and Harvesting Robot XV3

Robotic Pollinators in Vertical Farming: What the Future Holds

For robotic pollinators to achieve their true potential, more work toward expanding their scope is essential. They must demonstrate their effectiveness across a diverse range of crop-producing scenarios. With the consideration that each plant or crop has its own complexities, developers are faced with the challenge of adapting these technologies for crops that require different pollination methods.

The delicate nature of this work is compounded by the risks associated with remote guidance of mechanical solutions, which could potentially damage the flora. A solution to mitigate this risk could involve pollinators working with clusters of plants or crops, which necessitates less precision. On the other hand, individual attention to crops, especially those needing precise pollination, could be more challenging due to the potential for airflow to disrupt operation.

Collaboration with experts such as entomologists and agricultural scientists is key to making these robotic solutions more flexible and adaptable. Despite these efforts, the vast diversity of crops, fruits, and vegetables essential for our daily consumption means that there is still a significant amount of work to be done.

Moreover, these robotic solutions must adapt to the changing conditions brought on by climate change to maintain efficiency. Affordability is another critical factor; more accessible pricing would lower the barriers to entry in the competitive and ever-evolving agricultural industry.

The future of robotic pollinators is also closely tied to the growth of vertical farming. While many experts do not yet see vertical farming as a replacement for traditional farming, they acknowledge its viability for effectively growing crops in confined spaces. Should vertical farming begin to complement traditional methods significantly, the opportunities for robotic pollinators would expand, paving the way for diverse innovations in the field.

Click here to learn how robotics is changing agriculture as we know it today.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.