Miniature drones are being used to pollinate indoor crops as part of research into alternatives to pollination by honey bees.
Singaporean company Polybee is testing its drones at the University of Western Sydney and with South Australian company Perfection Fresh in trials funded by Hort Innovation as part of a $60 million commitment for research into pollination.
Honey bees struggle in covered environments and bumblebees, the gold standard for greenhouse pollination in the northern hemisphere, are not allowed to be imported into Australia.
Hort Innovation CEO Brett Fifield said covered crops are growing rapidly in the horticulture sector and will be key to reaching the industry’s goal of producing $20 billion worth of fruit and vegetable crops in 2030.
“This allows farmers to manage their crops sheltered from the impacts of weather and climate and to manage their inputs more thoroughly,” Mr Fifield said.
“Pollination is a key management tool that farmers [using] protected crops need to manage, and this research attempts to enable them to do so more effectively, more efficiently, and to reduce their input costs. »
Polybee founder Siddharth Jadhav said the drones would pollinate strawberry and tomato crops for Australian trials.
The air current from their propellers helps to spread the pollen between the flowers.
Mr Jadhav said the method outperformed bumblebees when tested at one of the UK’s largest indoor farms last April.
“We got over 50% yield improvement over bumblebee pollination,” Jardav said.
“And that’s the time of year when the price of produce is the highest and the pollination activity is lowest, so that’s the value proposition that we bring.”
Changing the way growers pollinate
University of Western Sydney trial leader Dr Patsavee Utaipanon said native stingless blowflies and bees would also be assessed in the trial.
She said hand pollination would normally be done with a small brush or by shaking the plants to spread the pollen between the flowers.
“But it takes a long time because you have to pick the flower at the right age, and it is very labor intensive,” Dr Utaipanon said.
Mr Jadhav said Polybee’s drones use off-the-shelf technology, but the algorithms that fly them also provide highly accurate yield predictions.
“We don’t really see ourselves as a drone company or a pollination company,” he said.
“Our primary focus is on improving profits and as part of our service we have two main features, one being precision pollination and the other being measurement and prediction.”
Growers would benefit from knowing what yield to expect from week to week, he said.
“They can price their products in a more informed way when they work with retailers and aggregators. And on the other hand, this information kind of helps them close the feedback loop on the culture and take more informed decisions in the management of their crops,” he said. .
Mr Fifield said improving pollination was a priority for the horticulture industry.
“Our industry has provided very clear signals that this is their priority and therefore the priority of horticultural innovation,” said Fifield.
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