Drone flown robotic arm revolutionizes Kauai’s rare flora preservation

Kauai robotic arm drone

Botanical researchers on the island of Kauai have teamed up with engineers in Quebec’s University of Sherbrooke to create a robotic arm flown by drone to collect rare flora in difficult or impossible-to -access spots for humans as part of their efforts to preserve endangered plants for centuries to come.

Scientists at Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) and University of Sheerbrook partnered with specialized tech company Outreach Robotics in developing the tailor-made aerial tool called Mamba. In trials, researchers piloted the drone-transported robotic arm to access rare plants located in inhospitable terrain for humans, including some of the dizzying and spectacularly sheer cliff faces for which Kauai is famous.

Samples of flora collected with the device are brought to NTGB laboratories, where they are grown from cuttings, and their seeds are preserved for – it is hoped ­– renewed proliferation one day.

Read: Drones lead Hawaii’s coconut rhinoceros beetle battle 

NTGB staffer Ben Nyberg has played a pioneering role in the use of UAVs to locate and identify rare plants in places previously only accessible for examination by dangerous rappelling down cliffs on ropes. The organization first began using drones on Kauai that way in 2016, but Nyberg says the creation of Mamba’s robotic arm to also collect rare species represents an enormous leap in the use of tech to preserve native flora.

“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,” said Nyberg, whose innovative drone work was previously featured by DroneDJ in 2021. “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 Mamba system is built around the cutting and grasping robotic arm (described as “roughly the length of a fishing rod”), which has been outfitted with eight surrounding directional propellers – that entire rig transported below a drone. The system can be remotely operated from up to a mile away, and during tests on Kauai enabled pilots to reach and retrieve several rare and endangered plants for seed preservation.

The Hawaiian Islands were a logical place for NTBG, Sherbrook, and Outreach Robotics to nurture and test Mamba’s development. Though the archipelago only makes up 1% of the US landmass, Hawaii harbors nearly half of all endangered plants in the country, with fully 27 indigenous species thought to have perished in the last two decades alone. 

Read moreKaua’i drone pilots uncover, protect native plants threatened with extinction 

Kauai, meanwhile, counts 255 plants that exist nowhere else on the planet, 97% of which are classified as endangered or in critical peril. The remainder are either already extinct or barely hanging on hidden in the wild.

The fruit of a collaboration that began in 2020, the research and development responsible for Mamba’s drone-flown robotic arm will now allow botanists to identify, reach, and bring back a greater number of endangered flora on Kauai, across Hawaii, and around the world – perhaps even a few believed to be extinct, but which have managed to endure in places humans weren’t able to reach until now.

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