Conservationists have a new tool to save endangered plants. They call it ‘The Mamba’

Kauai's cliffs are home to some of the world's most rare and endangered species, but access can be a challenge.
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 5:03 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 6, 2022 at 9:42 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - On Kauai, plant scientists and conservationists who work in cliffside settings rely on drones to pinpoint exactly where they need to go to reach rare and endangered species.

“We can go right in and get the elevation, the GPS location of the plants,” said Ben Nyberg, drone coordinator for the National Tropical Botanical Garden. “And we can look at high-resolution photos and select the exact individual that may have seeds on it.”

To collect plant seeds and cuttings, the team from NTBG and partner agencies need to grab them by hand.

But now they have a new tool.

“I was approached by a group in Quebec, Canada, that were working on cutting mechanisms that were drone based,” Nyberg said.

He helped technicians from Outreach Robotics adapt their robotic arm to plant conservation work.

The device is airlifted by a drone to plants which are hard for scientists to get at by mountain climbing and rappelling down the steep cliff sides.

“It swings in so it can reach three to five meters or about 15 feet from where the drone is horizontally,” Nyberg said.

When it zeroes in on a plant, the remote-controlled arm cuts a sample and collects seeds that are taken back to NTBG’s nursery in a fraction of the time it takes to it by conventional means.

“It’s really making things much more efficient and we’re having better success growing the plants once they get there,” Nyberg said.

The robotic arm is named “The Mamba.”

“It’s kind of long and it has a mouth on the end, so it reminds us of a black Mamba snake,” he said.

The team still does manual collections, but “The Mamba” goes where they can’t go.

“It just really allows us to get to areas that we would not be able to get to any other way,” Nyberg said.

Now NTBG and Outreach Robotics are working on a new application for the arm that reverses what it was designed to do.

“Instead of closing when we get to the cliff, letting go of something, getting a plant established and then being able to put it back onto the cliff with that same exact mechanism,” Nyberg said.

That can be a real game changer for some of Hawaii’s endangered plant species that are on the brink of extinction.