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Drones & Bees

Thursday, March 21, 2019
filed under: Research and Development

       There’s been a lot of ‘buzz’ lately about the use of drones in agriculture, and now an Australian company — Bee Innovative — is adding an important new dimension to the conversation:  drones that track honeybees in real time to help improve pollination precision.  It’s a technology-driven focus that could have big implications for crops where bees play a key role in pollination and, ultimately, yield and quality.  There are an estimated 100 such crops worldwide, with sunflower being a primary one.
       Bee Innovative’s founder and CEO, David Lyall, spoke at the National Sunflower Association Research Forum in January.  He addressed the vital importance of bees to the global community and also pointed out that there has been an estimated 90% drop in the global bee population.  That sharp decline carries huge implications for both agriculture and the ecosystem in general, he emphasized.
       Bee Innovative has developed BeeDar™, a radar-type system that employs drones flying about five meters (15-16 feet) above a field or orchard.  BeeDar provides real-time counts of bee populations and simultaneously maps their distribution.  “Bees don’t fly homogeneously,” Lyall explains.  “They don’t distribute out evenly in all directions.” The real-time reading of where the bees are at — and at what population levels — allows the field or orchard manager to react promptly and make adjustments in hive timing, counts and locations. 
       “Since BeeDar identifies areas of poor pollination in the field, the grower can respond in the same season,” Lyall emphasizes.  Historically, the impact of pollinator counts and distribution could only be “measured” after seedset has ended — too late to do much about it.  If seedset is mediocre or poor, the final result obviously is reduced yield and quality — and, a less-efficient harvest operation.
       Recently, Bee Innovative and the University of North Dakota signed a memorandum of understanding to work together tracking honeybees for precision pollination.   “At UND, we are the epicenter of research and education in unmanned autonomous systems,” notes Paul Snyder, director of the UAS Aviation Program at the university. “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.”
       Along with being a major producer of sunflower, North Dakota has led the nation in honey production for the past 14 years.  Combined, North and South Dakota account for nearly one-third of the nation’s honey production.  So between honey and the crops (e.g., sunflower, alfalfa) that rely on bees for optimal yield and quality, the potential of the UND-Bee Innovative collaboration is apparent.
       To date, Bee Innovative reports, its drones have struggled to recognize and avoid nets and other obstacles in orchards or fields that can cause collisions and result in costly damage to equipment and produce.  An initial proposal at UND is to advance the machine-vision capability of the current BeeDar drone platform to link sunflower growers in the region to tap into existing expertise from UND to further validate the Bee Innovative technology.  
UND’s Snyder says he’s enthused about how UND is able to pull together experts from multiple disciplines to solve real-world problems, like those addressed by the partnership with Bee Innovative.
       “Today’s drones are capable of autonomous flight over vast distance and have been proven to deliver greater efficiency and higher returns for farmers,” adds Kate Lyall, co-founder and chief technology officer for Bee Innovative. “Being able to extend those advantages to farmers working in more-complex environments, such as under netting in orchards, is an exciting prospect.”
       The exploration into how BeeDar drone technology can directly benefit commercial sunflower growers is just getting underway, and there’s a lot of work to be done as to the methodology and field-scale economics.  However, the possibilities already are sparking interest among producers of hybrid sunflower seed in places such as California’s Sacramento Valley, where bees are essential to good pollination and seedset.  In abnormally hot weather, for example, bees are not as active.  This technology could be an effective way of accurately detecting their activity level (or lack thereof), in real time — thus allowing field managers to react accordingly on a very timely basis.  The ultimate result should be higher yields and improved-quality seed at season’s end.
         Bee Innovative’s David Lyall says the company is looking at establishing a U.S.-based division this year to better address the potential market in this country for its products and services.  The Australian company and UND’s UAS research group plan to start conducting trials this summer.   Lyall’s priorities also include an active relationship with sunflower hybrid seed companies and commercial sunflower growers.      
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