YUMA, ARIZONA —“A 4-hour bus drive through Southern Arizona in September—with no air-conditioning—would cause most students to become hostile, but we laughed it off,” said Rene Jones.
Rene and her fellow students endured a 230 mile roadtrip to Yuma, Arizona as part of the Go To Market Initiative—an experiential learning opportunity between the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering, McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship and Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA). Thanks to additional partners like Tech Launch Arizona, Bard Date Company and the Muzzy Foundation, a consortia of undergraduate Engineering students and graduate students from the Eller College of Management have been tasked with devising aerial pollination methods in the form of a true startup venture.
Executive Director for YCEDA, Paul Brierley, saw this idea first take flight three years ago, when Cooperative Extension personnel Kurt Nolte and Rosa Bevington successfully experimented with the idea using women’s nylon stockings. “A small team of UA Engineering students started mechanizing the process,” Brierley recalls. That original team aimed to pollinate date palm trees with the use of aerial drones and a custom dispenser. “Thanks to a supportive sponsor, Bard Date, students were granted access to a date palm orchard where they attached the pollen dispenser to the bottom of the drone.” With a drone in hand, Brierley pantomimed a small dispenser in the middle of the device with two knuckles.
Dave Mansheim of Bard Date Company worked closely with that team as well, “We were curious to see if it would even work. To our surprise we saw a 75% success rate!” Mansheim was impressed with the students’ achievement, but he felt like there was more to this story. “Having worked in the date palm industry for 14 years, this has the potential to be revolutionary from a business standpoint.”
And Mansheim isn’t kidding around. Date palm trees require meticulous cultivation and, as he puts it, “No one has figured out how to efficiently pollinate date palms at scale.” A successful Medjool date harvest calls for specific and consistent weather conditions, demands the right amount of irrigation and fertilizer, and requires an expensive pollen that must be administered within feet of the flower. Not to mention date palm trees feature needle-sharp thorns that range from two to six inches in length.
Mansheim explains current date palm farming practices across the globe, “In parts of the Persian Gulf, you’ll have a farmer literally climb each tree and shake a wand of pollen at the very top. Some date palm trees grow to be 50 feet high. And the orchard could consist of 200-300 trees!” Mansheim then goes on to discuss more common pollination techniques used in Arizona, “What you typically see in Yuma are methods that blow the pollen outward, similar to a leaf blower. Sure it beats hiking up each tree, but what we gain in ease, we lose in precision. I’d like to see pollination practices that utilize less pollen and less labor.” Mansheim went on to explain that date pollen typically retails at $1,000 per liter.
To Brierley and Mansheim, it was clear that UA must revisit this project. But in doing so, they needed to scale their approach—and include students capable of applying an entrepreneurial mindset to this new technology. “McGuire seemed like a perfect fit,” says Brierley, “we’re thrilled McGuire faculty and staff have partnered with us on the GTM Initiative.” In 2018, McGuire leveraged a generous donation from the Muzzy Foundation to launch an inter-disciplinary learning experience featuring three senior design engineering teams and one business team, consisting of students enrolled in ENTR 696H — Special Topics in Entrepreneurship. “By pairing Engineering undergraduate seniors with McGuire students, we’re able to provide a unique learning experience that prompts students to identify an innovative solution and actually take that solution to market,” says Rick Yngve, Interim Director of the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. A total of 18 students are dedicated to devising an effective means of utilizing an automated drone fleet to pollinate date palm trees. What’s more, GTM students will develop a formidable business plan where they can present their AgTech venture to prospective investors. Yngve adds, “McGuire is interested in exploring more inter-disciplinary, ‘go-to market’ learning opportunities for students, particularly as it relates to the intersection of entrepreneurship and engineering.”
Larry Head—Interim Dean of the UA College of Engineering—couldn’t agree more, “As the 21st century economy becomes more automated and we move deeper into what’s being coined ‘the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, we believe students from the College of Engineering and McGuire are poised to devise new solutions to pressing market needs.”
For many students, joining the GTM Initiative has been enlightening, “I learned that a bushel of dates can be in excess of 100 lbs!” said Bader Mubarak Alzahrani. Others, like Brandon Bass, saw opportunities, “The agriculture business has lots of room for optimization.” But most importantly, they gained a better sense of the task at hand, “Hearing so much about date trees and date pollen cannot match what it is like to physically be there. The trip provided a connection between the engineering concepts and the realities on the ground. This is especially true with the pollen—I had no idea it was so light! The trip alleviated many of our doubts and questions, which is really important as we embark on the next stages of the GTM Initiative,” said Louis Bertani.
The next stage for the GTM Initiative students is the Critical Design Review—where they will present their engineering design of the drone pollinator to a panel of experts at the College of Engineering. And soon enough, the pollination season will descend onto Yuma where students will have roughly a four-week window to pollinate the date palm trees with their drone fleet. “Testing the drones this winter will be a humbling experience,” said Bass, “we can practice all we want. But mother nature decides when—and in what conditions—we’ll try to launch this thing.” We don’t know what mother nature will bring this February, but the GTM Initiative students certainly have caught our attention.