Boyi Hu, Ph.D., Develops Robotic Pollinators to Improve Food Security

Boyi Hu, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering (ISE) at the University of Florida, has received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture in support of his collaborative research on building robotic pollinators to improve overall food security.  

According to the USDA, natural pollinators are at a critical crossroads. Pollination increases crop productivity as well as the overall quality of a myriad of foods, including those that are needed to feed the human population. However, natural pollination methods may not work well in indoor environments. 

Dr. Hu and Yu Gu, Ph.D., an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering from West Virginia University, are working to develop a six-armed precision robotic pollinator, known as StickBug, to counteract this problem. These robotic pollinators are believed to be able to supplement insect pollinators and improve food safety in a controlled environment and have features such as mapping and flower data collection.  

There are a number of research challenges that are associated with precision robotic pollination. Researchers must consider the spatial-temporal development of crops and flowers, the similarity of flowers in a cluster, the unstructured plants with occlusions, and the number of flowers that need to be pollinated among a regional population. The StickBug was created to combat these challenges, specifically for greenhouse environments.  

“Instead of developing these robots as bee replacements, we see them as a ‘plan B,’ which is for improved food security during insect declines, supporting indoor agriculture, and providing services beyond what insects can do,” Dr. Hu said. “One particular challenge is that this robotic pollination system needs to work alongside and be easily accepted by growers. Throughout the course of this project, my team will utilize human-robot interaction theories to make the robot system easier and safer to work with.”  

The goal of the StickBug pollinator is to: aid growers and help them overcome the shortage of natural pollinators that are needed for improved productivity; and provide opportunities for higher food production profits by controlling pollination schedules. StickBug will also allow for selective pollination and better management of crops by timing and tracking pollinated flower growth.  

“Without the pollinators, we would not be able to enjoy most tree fruits (e.g., apples, peaches), berries (e.g., strawberries, blackberries), melons, coffee, and more,” Dr. Hu said. “In addition, approximately one in three bites of our food relies on pollinators, so the influence of our proposed system can be substantial. With a growing population, increased life expectancy and limited arable land on Earth, food security has long been recognized as a critical issue. Although the proposed experiments will only be focused on pollination, the technology can be further adapted for many other precision agriculture applications.”