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Drones for drones: how one startup could save the dwindling bee population

Another drone startup may be joining the neighborhood in North Dakota — and this one could save the world’s dwindling bee population.

Australian technology startup Bee Innovative announced it was partnering with the University of North Dakota’s campus in Grand Forks, N.D., in a project that could use drones to help another type of drone: bees.

Director of the UAS program, Paul Snyder, told the Grand Forks Herald that the company expects to be in North Dakota by the summer.

Bee Innovative has been tracking honeybees in real time for precision pollination. Through the UND partnership, the goal is to advance the machine-vision-capability of Bee Innovative’s current drone platform, “BeeDar.” The company says its drones have struggled to recognize and avoid nets and other obstacles that can cause collisions and costly damage to equipment and crops.

Even still, Bee Innovative claims that BeeDar has already delivered 20 percent increases in crop yields and returns for farmers season to season.

The partnership seems like a perfect pair for two reasons: UND has been a leader in drone innovation for years. And honey production already is an important part of North Dakota’s economy. The state has led the nation in production for 14 straight years.

But outputs are dwindling. Honey production in North Dakota last year was down 11% from 2016, and the number of honey-producing colonies in North Dakota was down 6% to 455,000, according to the Associated Press. Average yield was down 4 pounds, to 74 pounds per colony, and the total value of honey produced in the state was down 9%.

North Dakota has for years been a leader in advancing the drone industry.

In 2014, North Dakota was one of six states allowed to develop a test site for commercial drone applications: the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks. The site was part of an FAA program looking toward the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into airspace. North Dakota’s test site was the first to earn operational designation from the FAA and the first to fly under the agreement. The site covers more than half the state, boasting 45,000 square miles of authorized airspace — the largest such volume of any single state.

The nation’s first unmanned airport, the Grand Sky Development Park, opened in 2015 at the state’s Grand Forks Air Force Base.  The state of North Dakota committed $5 million to help bring infrastructure to the site as part of its 2015-17 executive budget and another $7.5 million in grants for runway improvements.

And last year, the FAA announced that the North Dakota Department of Transportation would be one of 10 sites chosen for its drone pilot program.

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