Jul 10, 2020
This Robot Uses AI To Pollinate Greenhouse Tomatoes
A pollinating robot designed by an Israeli company is being tested in Australia
Australia's $900-million-a-year greenhouse tomato industry currently relies on farmers pollinating by hand
The robot uses artificial intelligence to shoot air pulses at tomato flowers, replicating bumblebee buzz pollination
Arugga AI Farming is hoping its technology can transform Australia's greenhouse farming sector, especially greenhouse tomatoes, which are currently pollinated by hand.
Chief executive Iddo Geltner said after successful trials in Israel, the company had targeted Australia because it did not have bumblebees.
"Around the world, pollination in greenhouses is typically performed using commercially produced bumblebee hives, but these bees don't pollinate well in certain conditions, and they're actually banned in Australia," he told ABC Rural.
"So we've managed to design a robot that pollinates greenhouse tomatoes.
"It autonomously drives along the rows, finds flowers that are ready for pollination using artificial intelligence, and sends air pulses to vibrate the flowers in a very specific manner to imitate buzz pollination as performed by bumblebees."
Arugga's pollinating robot is being tested at Costa Group's multi-million-dollar greenhouse facility in Guyra, New South Wales.
Mr Geltner said the company would focus initially on pollinating tomatoes but was also looking at opportunities to improve yields for other greenhouse crops.
"The greenhouse sector is huge and growing around the world at a steady pace of more than 5 per cent a year," he said.
"As far as we know, greenhouse farming is the fastest growing [agricultural] sector in Australia, so we've started with Costa in Guyra, but later on will look to work with other growers."
Industry ripe for innovation
Jonathan Eccles from Protected Cropping Australia said the greenhouse tomato industry was worth around $900 million a year in Australia and continued to expand.
He said any innovation to improve pollination would be welcomed by the industry.
"We don't have [bumblebees] in mainland Australia, so we have to use alternative ways and that's by manually pollinating the tomato flowers using a vibrating wand," he said.
"So someone has to go around every few days and touch the stem of the tomato, vibrate them and shake the pollen onto the stigma of the flower.
"So it's very labour intensive and probably adds about $25,000 a hectare to the production of greenhouse tomatoes.”
He said researchers had been investigating the potential of other bees for pollination, particularly native bees, but felt the industry was ripe for some innovation.
"Robotics in greenhouses is certainly an exciting development, because with the high cost of labour in this country, manually pollinating is expensive.
"With the challenges we've got pollinating using the methods we use now through the vibrating wand, if we can find another method, like a robot, that's effective and doesn't do any damage to the flowers, that would be a great innovation."