Hawaii’s MAMBA Drone Is Saving Rare Endangered Plant Species

Crop management continues to occupy center stage in the burgeoning drone industry.  But as technology advances, agricultural missions are evolving far beyond basic aerial surveying and boundary management.  Some drones are equipped to seed and spray farms with fertilizers and pesticides – without the need for remote piloting, and in precise amounts based on soil fertility, crop stress, and other unique farm conditions.  And now, thanks to further innovations, some drones are being equipped with sophisticated cutting and grabbing tools to assist with the harvest.

Operating in tandem with self-powered wheelbarrow bins, robotic drone technology is nearing the point where the entire farm management process – including packaging and delivery– could be fully automated.

Currently, most of the new harvesting drones are picking fruit crops – apples, oranges and strawberries, for example – though in one known case, the target crop is asparagus.  But in Hawaii, a pioneering Canadian start-up, Outreach Robotics, has invented a cutting drone for yet another purpose:  to collect samples of several rare and endangered plant species that grow in rocky and inaccessible mountainous areas that no human, let alone another air vehicle, can possibly reach.

Outreach Robotics’ next-generation sample collection drone has one horizontal metal rod that lifts up the plant’s lower branches for inspection, while a specialized cutting device, dubbed the MAMBA, clips one of those branches free.  The system is so sophisticated it first allows for a precise measurement of the branch, then calibrates the cutting motion to exert just the right pressure to clip it.  Thanks to MAMBA, these fast-disappearing plant species are finally being studied – and might well survive.

Outreach Robotics came to the Hawaii project through the Kauai-based National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), which tried for years to collect rare plant species in Hawaii using more traditional methods.  Helicopters would drop trained rock climbers – usually botanists with boots and ropes – onto high cliffs, and the climbers would proceed to rappel down the sheer rock faces in search of rare plants.  It was dangerous, time-consuming and ultimately ineffective; the climbers had no real idea what they were looking for and whether it existed in the areas they were searching.

In 2016 the NTBG struck upon the idea of using drones to find and map rare plant species, but had no way of collecting samples for analysis – until the organization came in contact with Outreach Robotics, which was experimenting with cutting tools for drones.  The alliance of the two groups led to further technology development – a patented pendulum-swinging cutting tool – and voila, the MAMBA (Multi-Use Aerial Manipulator Bidirectionally Actuated) drone was born.

NTBG has spent the past year transferring the collected plant species samples to nurseries, and is watching them grow.  At the same time, botanists are studying wtaever fungi might be associated with the different species and investigating measures to combat them.  Having mapped the different areas of plant collection – again using drones and GPS – NTBG  and Outreach Robotics will soon be back in the field – this time to replant their carefully nurtured seedlings, and then spray them.  Can a drone perform this advanced crop management mission, too?  Only time will tell.

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