What do you get when you combine the top sunflower-producing state in the U.S. with the top state for honeybees and an innovative Australian startup company collaborating with the University of North Dakota, one of the nation’s leading universities for drone research and development?
“It’s the perfect trifecta!” exclaimed Amy Whitney, director of UND’s Center for Innovation, after describing how the University, state government and the agriculture industry worked to bring Bee Innovative from Australia to North Dakota, the state leading the U.S. in sunflower and honey production.
This summer, Bee Innovative will begin testing a concept known as precision pollination by using drones equipped with its BeeDar technology to track bees and monitor two sunflower fields in the Bismarck, N.D., area. A U.S. trial will provide a case study for farms growing pollination-dependent crops.
“BeeDar is a radar-like sensor which identifies, tracks and reports honeybee pollination activity in near real time,” said Kate Lyall, Bee Innovative’s chief technology officer. “By tracking honeybees in sunflower crops, farmers can make better use of hives to improve pollination, increasing yields and the value of their crop.”
With nearly 100 commercial crops around the world relying on bee pollination, Lyall said the company’s technology provides an opportunity to significantly increase agricultural production without using more land. In Australia, Bee Innovative’s technology has increased blueberry production by 20 percent. North Dakota’s goal is for a 10 percent increase in sunflower production to boost farm profitability and help sustain rural communities.
Precision pollination’s potential
As Lyall explained, “UAS systems provide a great platform to make farm management more efficient and to gather information to support precision agriculture. BeeDar provides the technology to support precision pollination and UAS systems are the most efficient platform to deliver this technology to millions of farmers around the world who grow bee-pollination-dependent crops.”
The National Sunflower Association, headquartered in Mandan, N.D., helped bring Bee Innovative to North Dakota. It’s coordinating efforts with the company to set up two nearly identical 20-acre fields for the experiment. UND researchers will work with Bee Innovative to evaluate crop health, monitor local weather conditions and track bees by using specially equipped unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
The North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission (APUC) awarded UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences $59,113 to conduct research in partnership with Bee Innovative. The Aerospace School is providing an additional $10,000 in funding for personnel and equipment.
UND’s research team includes Mark Askelson, interim executive director of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), who will monitor climate in the test area; Paul Snyder, director of the UND Aerospace UAS Program, who will serve as project manager; Haochi Zheng, assistant professor with the aerospace school’s Earth Systems Science & Policy Department, who will track bee health; and Mounir Chirt, a doctoral student who will assist Askelson.
Coming to America
UND’s Center for Innovation helped secure APUC funding and is assisting Bee Innovative with incorporating as a North Dakota business, as well as providing many of the assets it needs to succeed as a startup company.
“If you’re a foreign company and you want to do business in the United States, we provide a place for you to establish a business footprint,” Whitney explained. “We can provide a physical address, coaching and resources to help you get established right here in the Center. Bee Innovative will use our facility as a home base in the early stages of coming to the U.S.”
Snyder said that while some details are still being worked out, he expects the project to begin this month.
“Once we get to the point where we have a crop, we’ll be flying our UAS with a multispectral camera to get an idea of the crop health for both fields,” Snyder said. “With Dr. Zheng’s help, we also plan to work with the beekeepers to monitor hive health.”
When the crop begins to flower, a UAS equipped with BeeDar will track the bees, enabling the development of pollination maps to assist in making adjustments aimed at improving the pollination in one of the fields.
“We’ll get our end results and see how the two fields compare,” Snyder said. “We have to make sure we’re working with the bee producers in the state and working with the farmers. It must be a collaborative effort if we’re going to see the results we want.”
According to Lyall, “The key factors for success are the collaboration between Bee Innovative’s Australian staff and the University of North Dakota – which has world-renowned staff in a range of disciplines – and great support from the National Sunflower Association.”
Whitney said North Dakota had a unique combination of factors that made Bee Innovative’s technology a natural fit for the state.
“We combine the research interests and intellectual talent that we have at UND and bring them together with an innovative startup company and community partner to do something exciting for North Dakota and – as it grows – exciting for the world,” she said.