The Buzz Behind the Artificial Pollinators of Tomorrow

A technology solutions provider is aiming to boost urban farming and enhance food security by building technologies that improve productivity in agriculture.

Siddharth Jadhav loves to read. The 28-year-old founder of technology solutions provider Polybee shares, “It’s very likely that at any point in time, I’m thinking about things and trying to understand how they work.”

Siddharth Jadhav, the founder of Polybee, speaks with us from an indoor farm. Image source: MOSG

His eyes gleam as he explains how he started reading more about molecular biology during the onset of the pandemic to learn more about how viruses and infections spread. So, it comes as no surprise that the inspiration behind Polybee’s key idea — using autonomous drones for indoor pollination — also began from a book.

Working as an Associate Scientist at Temasek Laboratories in the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2018, Siddharth researched drones — spanning research areas such as aerodynamics, control systems, system integration, and more. At the same time, he was reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which sparked his curiosity about the agriculture industry.

“I realised, wow, there’s so little that I know about the food that comes to my plate,” Siddharth remarks. “I started noticing things like how agriculture uses 70% of freshwater globally, and how most countries have an insufficient supply of fruits and vegetables.”

As Siddharth explored this space further, he discovered vertical farming — an emerging method of farming in urban settings, such as Singapore, which involves growing crops in vertically-stacked layers amid controlled, indoor environments.

Companies that make use of vertical farming typically struggle to use natural pollination to grow food crops like strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and more.

Typically, natural pollination is carried out with the help of bumblebees

However, bumblebees are native only to a few regions in the world. In regions without native bumblebees, like Southeast Asia and Australia, pollination must be done manually.

Imagine pollinating with your hands. It would be quite a painstaking job.

“Agriculture is probably mankind’s first noteworthy invention. And yet, it has seen the slowest speed of innovation so far.”

— Siddharth Jadhav, founder, Polybee

“It wasn’t very intuitive to me that you couldn’t use natural pollinators that easily in a fully-controlled setting. So, I started reaching out to a lot of these indoor vertical farming companies within Singapore, and overseas in the US and in Japan. I was sending these cold emails saying we have a hunch that we could solve this problem with drones.”

The responses that Siddharth received were heartening, confirming his suspicions that companies were indeed facing challenges with natural pollination.

Going Beyond Solving a Problem

Polybee, founded in September 2019, has two main types of drone platforms: small, palm-sized drones are used to navigate the tight spaces in fully-indoor vertical farming environments, while slightly larger drones are used in greenhouses where space constraints are not as limited.

A larger Polybee drone within a greenhouse. Image source: Polybee

The drones are planned to be fully autonomous to eliminate inconsistencies and labour cost. They are also designed to be efficient and precise, able to effectively pollinate hundreds of thousands of flowers every day, thereby significantly boosting productivity in a cost-effective way.

“Pollination is important, but it’s also a means to an end — the end goal being improving and maximising yield,”

— Siddharth says.

Greater crop yields help ensure greater food security. This purposeful goal is more important than ever, as the pandemic has created trade disruptions and exposed the fragility of our food supply chains, leading people to care more about the quality of their food as well as where it comes from.

Growing Solutions That Benefit Mankind

Beyond pollination, Polybee’s autonomous drones also assist in collecting and measuring plant data.

This helps seed companies swiftly identify plant genes that contain specific traits, so they can breed different plants to produce new varieties that are more resilient to pests, diseases, and climate change.

A Polybee drone flies over strawberry plants to simulate pollination. Image source: Polybee

“It’s a concern for mankind!” Siddharth says of climate change. When he speaks, you get a sense that he truly cares about the world and where it’s headed.

“The kinds of responses that we’ve seen from the companies we’ve been working with — they can’t stop imagining how they can change the way of doing things. And that’s the promise that really fuels us and helps us reinforce our mission.”

“What really drives me and what I find most fulfilling is that we are working on a problem that’s critical to mankind, and using our skill set to enhance food security is such a good use of our time.”

Envisioning the Future Today

For developing its innovative ideas, Polybee was awarded a cash prize of $25,000 from the DBS Foundation Social Impact Prize competition. The team used the funding to establish a fully-indoor tomato farm in Singapore that recreated the typical glasshouse environment in regions across the globe, such as the Netherlands, Australia, or the United States.

This enabled Polybee to further develop its technology at a faster pace.

Image source: MOSG

Polybee was also awarded the DBS Tech for Impact Prize, which connects the team with various groups within DBS for keen insights and marketing support. Siddharth says, “Given the kinds of transformations that DBS has gone through, there’s plenty of lessons for us to learn from them as a young start-up.”

Siddharth hopes to reach a point where people from anywhere in the world can use Polybee’s technology to improve yield in their farms — making it as simple as receiving a box of equipment, following a set of instructions, and launching the solution on their phones. He’s also interested in introducing new types of crops for an even more resilient food supply.

“I like to work on things that are big and important,” Siddharth says excitedly. “You never know what’s around the corner, but if you’re engaged and curious, it’s very rewarding.”

This story first appeared in Portraits of Purpose by DBS Bank.

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