Drones track bees to improve pollination and crop production

By Patrick C. Miller | February 04, 2019

Can the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) commonly known as drones help bees become more efficient at pollination to increase agricultural production?

A collaboration between Bee Innovative—an Australian technology startup company—and the UAS program at the University of North Dakota John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences in Grand Forks will attempt to answer this question. The joint effort advances the machine-vision capability of “BeeDar,” Bee Innovative’s drone platform.

The technology has been used by Australian farmers to track bee movements and pollination patterns in real-time. It has delivered 20 percent increases in crop yields and returns for farmers season to season.

With agriculture and honey production as an important part of North Dakota’s economy, Bee Innovative and UND signed a memorandum of understanding that could unlock a new market for agricultural drones in the U.S. The agreement combines Bee Innovative’s experience in tracking honeybees in real-time for precision pollination in Australia with UND’s expertise in UAS technology.

“Today’s drones are capable of autonomous flight over vast distances and have been proven to deliver greater efficiency and higher returns for farmers,” said Kate Lyall, Bee Innovative chief technology officer and co-founder. “Being able to extend those advantages to farmers working in more complex environments, such as under netting in orchards, is an exciting prospect for growers and technology vendors alike.”

The partnership will work toward enabling BeeDar’s application to address current limitations in autonomous navigation, which make drones incapable of recognizing and avoiding nets and other obstacles. This can result in collisions that cause costly damage to equipment and crops.

“Thirty percent of the world’s food supply comes from pollination dependent crops, which are often grown in complex environments such as under netting or increasingly using indoor systems,” Lyall said.

Paul Snyder, director of the UAS Aviation Program at UND, said, “We are pleased to develop this strategic international relationship, leveraging our joint international expertise to solve real problems that directly benefit North Dakota and the entire international community.”