Robotic Bees Could Support Vertical Farms Today and Astronauts Tomorrow
In vertical farming operations, artificial lights and artificial intelligence coax plants, stacked densely on towering shelves rather than spread over a field, to grow indoors with minimal human intervention. That’s the goal. But despite lofty promises of bringing fresh produce to local markets, these systems have not yet provided a climate-friendly way to feed the world’s growing population. Can robotic “bees,” a buzzy technology straight out of science fiction, rescue these high-tech operations?
The world’s first commercial vertical farm opened in Singapore in 2012. More businesses cropped up in the following years, with major players such as Infarm and AeroFarms securing hundreds of millions in funding over the next decade. With the help of sustainable systems such as hydroponics, as well as artificial intelligence to closely monitor plant growth and water usage, some companies and experts claim these futuristic farms could tackle global food insecurity—without the massive land and water footprint of conventional operations.
These farms “have the potential to contribute a meaningful amount to our diets,” says Thomas Graham, who researches controlled environment agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario. And companies can place them nearly anywhere.
Many vertical farms’ hopes have dried up over the past year, however. Recent inflation and worldwide skyrocketing energy prices, fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rendered these farms’ near-constant electricity demand unaffordable. This past fall Infarm announced it was laying off more than half of its employees, and AeroFarms recently filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile other vertical farm ventures are also facing financial challenges.
It doesn’t help that vertical farms currently have a limited range of offerings; most grow only greens such as lettuce and herbs because they use low amounts of water and are relatively easy to cultivate indoors via hydroponics thanks to their speedy development. “Some of the work we’re doing is moving past just leafy greens,” Graham says. “You can’t feed the world on lettuce.”
To truly take on food insecurity, vertical farms must expand their offerings, and that means finding a way to bring pollinators into high-tech indoor farming operations. Around one third of the crops we eat require pollinators such as bees and bats to grow. It’s difficult to get the job done in a vertical farm because domesticated honeybees, one of the most popular pollinators for commercial growers, have trouble navigating under artificial light, and pollinating by hand is extremely time intensive and thus expensive. To solve the problem, researchers have been working on robotic pollinators for more than a decade. But such pollinators have only recently made their way to universities and commercial operations.