WSU receives grant to develop robotic pollinator

For the Basin Business Journal | August 15, 2020 1:00 AM

PROSSER — Washington State University (WSU) has announced that it has received a grant to develop a robotic pollinator. Manoj Karkee, WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering, is the lead researcher on the project.

Currently, a majority of pollination takes place using bees. But recently, researchers have been working on mass spray pollination systems.

“The pollen is sprayed on trees, regardless of where the flowers are,” Karkee said. “There is no control over which flowers to pollinate.”

Karkee said that the project he will be working on will design a robot that targets specific flowers for precise pollination.

Karkee and his team of scientists and engineers will not be starting from scratch when it comes to robotics. Karkee is currently collaborating on other robotics projects. One of the projects he is helping with is the apple picking machine being produced by FFRobotics, of Netanya, Israel, and Automated Ag, of Moses Lake. While the project has just begun, Karkee suspects that the robot will look similar to the FFRobotics robot, but with different hands.

“In a way, you can visualize this robot to have multiple hands, move up and down the rows, scan the trees and find flowers,” Karkee said. “The robot hands may look similar, but the end part of the robotic hands will be different, applying or spraying pollen suspended. The rest of the machine may look very similar.”

While the FFRobotics team are not any of the main researchers on the new project, they are being consulted.

“The goal is also to have a multi-purpose machine,” Karkee said.

Karkee envisions a robot that can not only pollinate and pick up fruit, but also prune and thin fruit trees.

“It would have interchangeable hands,” Karkee said. “You would want to keep the arm part and big machine. You would change hands – scissors for pruning, a sprayer. That is the ideal goal here.”

Such a machine would make it more affordable and sustainable for orchardists to own and operate.

“This is one of the projects in the list of projects to do in robotic technologies,” Karkee said. “Harvesting, pruning, spraying, water application – we already have projects in different stages of development. Pollination is the latest project. I hope to use other technologies in the development project.”

The robotic pollination project involves engineers and scientists from both WSU and Penn State. Karkee said that prior to COVID-19, collaboration of this kind was already being done over online meeting platforms. The purpose for collaboration over such a long distance is to develop solutions that work not only on the west coast, but all over the country.

“We need to bring in expertise from different angles – robotics, engineering, horticulture,” Karkee said. “You don’t always find experience in the same place.”

Part of the funding for the project also requires that there be collaboration.

“We need to develop solutions that are robust,” Karkee said. “We need this kind of collaboration.”

Karkee said that the researchers will be starting with apples and cherries in Washington state and apples in Pennsylvania. Once the robot has been successful with these fruits, others will follow. By the end of the three-year project, Karkee said he hopes to have a machine with one arm and hand and one camera.

“We’ll be testing in both the lab and field to see if it’s valid,” Karkee said. “You’ll see some version of the machine in the next two years or so. We’ll need time to test. You will not see the full 12-arm machine. It may be another three years after the completion of this project.”

Regardless of how long it may take, Karkee is happy to be working on another project of robotic machines to be used in orchards. He said that he also wants to work on robots for vegetable operations.

“I’m really excited about it,” Karkee said.