Dropcopter's drones boost crop pollination by up to 60% in bad bee years
A large percentage of the world's food production relies on bee pollination, but what do we do when the bees can't be relied on? US startup Dropcopter has just demonstrated that it can deliver a 25 to 60 percent boost in pollination rates using autonomous drones to pick up where the bees left off.
Much has been made of the collapse of bee populations worldwide, what the causes might be and what we might be able to do about it. It's no small issue, given how much of the global food supply hangs in the balance.
But plummeting bee populations are not the only issue; weather can alsoplay a part. If it's too cold, too hot or too windy in the critical flowering periods of certain food crops, bees can't get the job done nearly as well. Pollination rates can suffer and yields can drop, pushing prices up for staple fruits, nuts and vegies and generally causing pain in the market.
Startup company Dropcopter, operating out of San Francisco and New York City, believes UAVs might be a solution. It's been testing aerial drone pollination across almond, cherry and apple crops in the United States and seeing some impressive results.
Dropcopter's autonomous drones are programmed to fly over the rows of crops in flower, dropping pollen onto them en masse. It's a far less efficient solution than bee pollination – bees are beautifully adapted to do the job. They visit individual flowers and shake the pollen out of them, collecting it on hairs all over their bodies and visiting multiple plants in an outing before taking the protein-rich pollen back to the hive to feed their young. They do their task with excellent precision.
Dropcopter's solution of pollen-bombing the crops is more akin to the way grasses reproduce, dusting an entire area with airborne pollen and relying on sheer numbers in the hope that a tiny percentage will land in the right spot. This may not be an ideal solution for allergy sufferers.
Still, desperate times may call for desperate solutions. You'd imagine it's best to bomb the crops after the bees have operated, because otherwise the bees might be delighted to find massive air-drops of pollen all over the place, and adapt to a new, plentiful food source that doesn't require them to go to work at all.
In test results quoted by sUAS News, Dropcopter claims it's been able to boost crop pollination by between 25 and 60 percent in cherries and almonds, depending on conditions during the flower bloom. With almonds, the gain is more like 10 percent. Testing will continue as Dropcopter seeks further investment. This is good news for primary producers, with the potential to perform well in a wider range of weather conditions as well as boosting production even in the best circumstances.
Dropcopter CEO Matt Koball discusses the approach in the video below.