Scientists at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Hawaii, along with engineers at Outreach Robotics and researchers from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada have designed a remotely controlled arm that can collect rare and endangered plants while suspended by a drone.
Their progress has been published in the journal Nature – Scientific Reports, documenting how the new technology is redefining rare plant conservation on high cliffs and other extreme habitat.
The partnership centers around an aerial robotic sampler roughly the length of a fishing rod equipped with eight propellers and a cutting mechanism which is suspended by a drone. The arm, called Mamba, can be operated remotely up to one mile (1.6 km) away. In flight trials, NTBG scientists and their partners have successfully collected seeds and cuttings from remote plant populations of extremely rare native species such as Lysimachia iniki and Isodendrion pyrifolium which grow on sheer cliff faces that are otherwise inaccessible.
NTBG drone specialist Ben Nyberg calls the technology “ground-breaking” and said, “this combination of robotics and botany is exciting, and is already having an amazing impact both in species conservation and the knowledge we’re gaining about cliff environments.”
Once retrieved by Mamba, the plants are recorded and brought to NTBG facilities where seeds are stored in a seed bank for conservation and research. Other seeds and cuttings are propagated in the nursery where they are grown and later used for restoration projects and returned to the wild.
NTBG nursery manager Rhian Campbell said the new technology can potentially increase success rates in growing rare plants because wild cuttings reach the conservation nursery much faster and in better condition than if they had been retrieved by hand. “The amount of time fragile cuttings spend under stress is minimized. Mamba allows us to collect multiple species very efficiently in a fraction of the time it used to take,” said Campbell.
NTBG is based on Kauai which is recognized as a biodiversity hotspot and is the oldest of Hawaii’s inhabited islands. Kauai is home to 255 plant species found nowhere else on Earth, nearly 90 percent of which are classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered based on IUCN Red List criteria. The remaining ten percent are extinct or nearly extinct in the wild.
For decades, NTBG botanists have used helicopters, rappelling, and rough terrain roping techniques to discover and collect plant material from some of the world’s rarest and most difficult to reach plant species.
Since 2016, NTBG has been using drones to discover rare plant populations previously thought to have gone extinct or otherwise unknown. NTBG’s collaboration with Outreach Robotics and the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec began in 2020.
Trial flights using Mamba include partnering with the State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) and the Plant Extinction Prevention Program. Adam Williams, a DOFAW botanist said, “Mamba has exceeded our wildest expectations, turning science fiction into reality. Surveying and collecting from a thousand-foot-high cliff from a mile away is just mind-blowing.”
Calling Mamba a “game changer,” NTBG’s Nyberg added, “it allows us to reach critically endangered species that are down to just a few individuals. It can be the difference between extinction and survival.”
The mission of the National Tropical Botanical Garden is to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and education by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions.
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Learn more about the work of the National Tropical Botanical Garden at www.ntbg.org.
Learn more about NTBG’s drone program at www.ntbg.org/science/conservation/drones/.
Learn more about the work of Outreach Robotics at www.outreachrobotics.com.
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