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‘Drone bees’ could help pollinate crops as natural population declines

Fri 10 Feb 2017

Bee drones

Swarms of bio-inspired drones could be called upon to help fertilise wildflowers and crops, as the natural bee population teeters onto the list of endangered species.

Around 70% of global crops rely on cross-pollination by bees and other insects. But climate change and a rise in pesticides among other factors have led to an alarming decline in the pollinator population which is having a detrimental impact on farmers’ crop yields.

In an attempt to tackle the bee decline, Japanese researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, have engineered tiny $100 drones to artificially pollinate plants by fitting horsehair bristles to their base and lacing the machines with sticky ionic liquid gel (ILG).

Screen Shot 2017-02-10 at 16.14.00Lead researcher Eijiro Miyako explains in a paper, titled Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators, that the robotic pollinators mimic bees’ stickiness in order to carry and deposit pollen grains. Unlike traditional adhesives, the ionic gel is attached to the horsehair which provides a greater surface area for the pollen to stick to and creates an electric charge to keep the grains in place.

The 15-gram drones have already been successfully tested on white Japanese lilies. The drones were able to fly inside the plants, collecting and releasing pollen from the male (stamen) and female (pistils) parts of the flower without damaging it.

Miyako suggests that this is the first drone experiment to successfully pollinate a flower, despite noting that it is not necessarily a practical solution to the dwindling bee population.

In the paper, he argues that the solution could only be realised if high-resolution cameras, GPS and artificial intelligence (AI) were added to the drones. These technologies could help the bots move more intelligently and learn optimal pollination paths. However, Miyako notes that incorporating these tools presents a challenge considering the size of the pollinator drones.


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