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Enter the Robot Bees
November 3, 2014   
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Scientists from the Warsaw University of Technology are working to build tiny drone-like robots that will be able to fly and pollinate crops just as honeybees do. Technology of this kind could well prove to be a way to save the world from future famine now that honey bees are dying out by the millions across the planet.

Scientists from the Warsaw University of Technology are working to build tiny drone-like robots that will be able to fly and pollinate crops just as honeybees do. Technology of this kind could well prove to be a way to save the world from future famine now that honey bees are dying out by the millions across the planet.

According to a spate of scientific studies, the main reason why bees are dying in massive numbers is the use of pesticides, though other culprits may also include mites, viruses, parasites, and nutrition problems.

In addition to a flying device, the scientists say they are working on a pollinator that will move along the ground as well as a “traversing” version.

Work on the Polish artificial bee device began in 2012 and is being carried out by a team led by Rafa³Dalewski, Ph.D., at the Warsaw University of Technology. Since one of the key features of the mini-robots is the ability to fly, Dalewski’s team is made up of scientists from the university’s Faculty of Power and Aeronautical Engineering. The project is called B-DROID for short and its full name is “An autonomous system for mechanical plant pollination.” It is being financed from funds earmarked for young, up-and-coming scientists by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) under its Lider (Leader) program. The center has set aside more than zl.1.1 million for the artificial bee project.

“We are working to develop three basic versions of the pollinating mini-robot,” says Dalewski. “The biggest challenge is the flying version.” Another version is supposed to move along the ground and the third is a “traversing” device, he added.

Each version is intended for different crops. What they have in common is the positioning method, which is how they will find objects out in the field.

This spring the scientists tested their ground-based device for the first time. It was taken to a rapeseed field where, without any help from humans, it found the plant in question, reached the flower and collected pollen.

The number of plants the device can pollinate depends on the type of crop. Plants differ in the shape of flowers. For example, rapeseed has many small flowers. The devices the designers are constructing are adapted to specific crops. The final design and robot functions will be developed at the stage of going commercial with the products. Dalewski said, “We will create a technology demonstrator that will show the possibilities of our pollinating mini-robots. We’ve already proved that the ground-based device is capable of performing field tasks. Now we are working on the flying mini-robot.”

This tiny robotic device must be equipped with a complex flying mechanism in order to be able to move up and down between plants, posing a considerable challenge for mechanics and engineers. Similar projects are being conducted by universities across the world including Harvard and Cambridge. But scientists abroad have exclusively focused on constructing a small flying device attached to a cable. The problem is that such a device cannot pollinate plants because it is so tiny that it cannot accommodate an electric cell or any other power supply, according to Dalewski. And a robot with an external power supply attached to it via a cable cannot fly far enough to reach a plant located at a greater distance, Dalewski says. The Polish scientists hope the devices they are designing will be able to do just that.

Once the new devices are operational and ready for use, the only thing crop growers will have to do will be to prepare the area for the artificial bees to work in and indicate what kind of plant needs to be pollinated. The robots will take care of the rest. They will be controlled by a hi-tech IT system that will make all the necessary calculations. First, a special reconnaissance device will be deployed to inspect the area and create a three-dimensional map, preliminarily identify the flowers and locate any obstacles. Then a set of pollinating robots will join the fray. They will have to not only locate the flowers on the plants but also evaluate if these are ready to be pollinated, judging by the color or temperature of their receptive stigmas, for example. After accomplishing their task, the robots will fly back for maintenance service—a change of batteries, for example.

During the pollination procedure the robot must approach the flower, collect pollen and pass it on to the next flower. The important thing is that it does not need to land on the flower—this is not necessary in the process. The robot will be equipped with a special miniature broom for collecting pollen, which will then rub off on a different plant in order to pollinate it.

These automated pollinating devices will use techniques that people sometimes use in the manual pollination of plants. It’s just that the robots will have to be extremely precise and careful so as not to destroy flowers and plants. To begin with, the flying mini-robots will work in greenhouses, where there are no problems caused by weather conditions such as wind.

According to Dalewski, the new pollinating mini-robots have big market potential and will attract the attention of both growers and companies producing seed, including new varieties of rapeseed. While working on the project, the Warsaw researchers have been consulting mainly rapeseed growers, yet their system is being developed in such a way so that artificial bees can be used to pollinate other crops as well, Dalewski said.

Karolina Olszewska


Factfile

Honey bees are crucial in the pollination of many crops. Over the past several years, bee populations have been dying at an alarming rate throughout the world.

Honey bees pollinate plants that produce much of the food consumed by people worldwide.

Scientists say the devastating rate of bee deaths is at least in part due to the growing use of pesticides by farmers and businesses seeking to boost crop yields.

Meanwhile, agrochemical companies that produce pesticides quote studies suggesting that bees are being killed by other factors, such as mites, viruses, parasites, and nutrition problems.
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