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Completed project

Development of non-biological pollination options for protected cropping using emerging technologies (PH19000)

Key research provider: Polybee
Publication date: Monday, December 4, 2023

What was it all about?

From 2022 to 2023, this investment investigated whether autonomous micro-drones are effective at pollinating self-fertile crops such as tomatoes and strawberries.

The research team deployed autonomous drone technology to pollinate tomato and strawberry crops in protected cropping environments using a method called ‘Aerodynamically Controlled Pollination’ (ACP). This method uses the turbulence from the drones’ propellers to maximise the vibration of the flower’s reproductive parts and, therefore, the dispersal of pollen in self-fertile crops such as strawberries and tomatoes.

Strawberry trial

Polybee collaborated with Western Sydney University (WSU) to conduct a strawberry pollination trial in a controlled glasshouse at Hawkesbury campus. The experiment aimed to compare four treatments: no pollination (control), hand pollination, blowfly pollination, and drone-based ACP.

The drone pollination system was configured to map the glasshouse, set flight boundaries, establish a ground control station, and schedule daily pollination. The experiment occurred twice in August and September 2022, using separate glasshouse chambers as replicates.

WSU's research scientist aided in data collection, analysis, and reporting across treatments and replicates. The first experiment showed drone pollination outperforming no pollination, while blowfly and hand pollination had the best results with heaviest fruits. The second drone experiment faced challenges due to a botrytis fungal infection causing higher fruit abortion rates, limiting the control fruit's development to under 50 per cent, insufficient for statistical analysis.

The hypothesis attributes the lower drone pollination yields to the strawberry variety used, Lowanna. It produces fewer, larger berries due to a smaller flush, leading to less pollen dispersal onto central stigmas.

Tomato trial

In collaboration with Perfection Fresh, Polybee also conducted pollination trials on snacking and truss tomatoes in Perfection Fresh’s glasshouse in Two Well, South Australia.

The trial was conducted over one row each for snacking variety (Tastery) and truss variety (Endeavour) between October 2022 to August 2023. Invaluable insights into the practical applicability of the two pollination techniques under examination were drawn from the experiments.

 The results highlight a distinct divergence in yield outcomes between the Tastery and Endeavor tomato varieties. In the case of Endeavor variety, the fruits produced through ACP consistently yield equal or superior results when compared to those obtained through manual pollination. This observation suggests that ACP has the potential to facilitate self-pollination in the Endeavor variety.

The downwash generated by the drones' propellers proves to be sufficiently effective in inducing flower vibrations, thus leading to the dislodging of pollen from anthers onto the stigmas. However, when considering the taster variety, our findings do not conclusively indicate a positive improvement through ACP, warranting further investigation into its potential efficacy for this specific variety.