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The Bots and the Bees

West Virginia University Researchers Developing Robotic Pollinator


Researchers Nicole Waterland, Yong Lak Park, Xin Li, Jason Gross, and others from West Virginia University are working to program the robot Cataglyphis for plant pollination.

On Labor Day weekend, a group of ten West Virginia University students won one of NASA's Centennial Challenges, creating a robot that could gather sediment samples without the aid of certain Earth-based technologies.

Now, the autonomous robot Cataglyphis is being reprogrammed for a new task: pollination.

Necessary hardware changes include replacing the robot's sample collection basket with a robotic arm that can be programmed for flower manipulation. Its four new software functions will include navigation and mapping; flower detection, localization and evaluation; flower manipulation for pollination; and human-robot interaction.

Cataglyphis will be equipped with computer vision algorithms that use image and video data to direct the robot and analyze flowers. The robotic arm will have soft brush tips that mimic a bee's anatomy to pollinate the flowers.

The project is funded for three years, two of which will be spent developing the robot to perform its new tasks. In its third year, Cataglyphis will be put to work pollinating blackberries and raspberries in the university's greenhouse. Its performance will be evaluated by comparing the robot pollinated plants to a set of plants pollinated by bees, a set hand-pollinated by humans, a set pollinated by both robots and humans, and a set that is not pollinated at all.

If the experiment is successful, Cataglyphis and the technology developed will be transitioned into real-world agricultural and horticultural applications.

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January 21, 2019, 9:08 pm PST

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