A new study is investigating whether small autonomous drones can effectively pollinate tomatoes and
strawberries in Australian protected-cropping environments and quash the need for manual methods.
Being delivered through Hort Innovation, with Singaporean technology service provider Polybee, Western Sydney University and major Australian grower, Perfection Fresh, the new $1.3M research project aims to improve labour and production efficiency.
Hort Innovation chief executive officer Brett Fifield said the pollination of tomatoes in glasshouses is often done by hand, with people having to go row by row to vibrate the plants to mimic “buzz” pollination.
He also said strawberries represent an industry moving from typical field conditions and exploring the benefits of glasshouses, however honey bees, often seen pollinating strawberries, are not used in glasshouses because they do not cope well in that environment. Therefore, new alternatives need to be explored to help industries succeed in protected cropping environments.
“Pollinating self-fertile crops such as strawberries and tomatoes in protected cropping environments can be labour intensive and time-consuming,” Mr Fifield said. “What this new research aims to do is remove the need for manual pollination, while improving fruit set consistency to result in higher yield.”
Polybee chief executive Siddharth Jadhav said the micro-drones, which are about 15cm x 15cm in size, hover over each cluster of flowers for up to 15 seconds in a glasshouse setting. He said turbulent air from the drone vibrates the flowers to disperse pollen, before the drone moves on to the next plant.
“Our drones have been developed for use in protected cropping environments with sub-centimetre accuracy positioning,” Mr Jadhav said. “Each utilises 3D vision techniques for precision, autonomous docking and wireless charging.”
Mr Jadhav said in operation, a glasshouse can be split into smaller bays, each of which is served by one drone. “In an indoor farm, a drone takes off for pollination and plant measurements, returns to its base when it runs out of charge, recharges wirelessly within an hour and a half, and returns to operate from where it left off.”
Trials will be conducted in protected cropping environments at Western Sydney University and at Perfection Fresh farms in South Australia.
Perfection Fresh Taso Kourou said if the micro-drone technique proved effective at pollinating crops, it could present a ‘game-changer’ for industry.
“As production increasingly moves into protected environments, a pollination solution that could reduce our dependency on labour for manual pollination, increase yield and help provide a more consistent fruit set would be valuable,” Mr Kourou said.
At the end of this project in September 2023, the autonomous pollination of strawberries and tomatoes will have been compared to conventional and alternative pollination techniques, and a report will be submitted recommending the next steps should the technology demonstrate high potential.
Western Sydney University project lead Professor James Cook, from the Hawkesbury Institute for the
Environment, said: “This project will test the effectiveness of this new technology in providing autonomous pollination as a scalable solution for commercial protected cropping, and information generated by the project will facilitate evidence-based decisions on the uptake of technology by growers.”
This project is being delivered through Hort Innovation’s Hort Frontiers strategic partnership initiative. Hort Frontiers facilitates collaborative, transformation research and development to support horticulture to 2030, and beyond.