These Tiny Drones Could Replace Bees As Natural Pollinators

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 90% of flowering plants and 35% of food crops rely on animal pollinators to pollinate them. However, the population of key pollinators such as honeybees has been dwindling for years due to viruses and pesticides. A decline in the population of major pollinators around the world could lead to food crisis. So, some scientists have been working on ways to protect the honeybees and other pollinators. And then there are some researchers exploring advanced technological methods to ensure crop pollination even if honeybees go extinct.

Tiny Drones Natural Pollinators
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The drone pollinates lily flowers

Researchers in Japan have developed tiny drones capable of delivering pollen to flowers, just like bees. During the study, the drone flew between Japanese lily flowers, collecting and dispersing pollen. Dr. Eijiro Miyako, the lead author of the study, said he was “really surprised” to see the growth of pollen tubes under fluorescent microscopy. Findings of the study were published Thursday in the journal Chem.

While the idea of tiny drones pollinating crops is exciting, the real innovation lies in the sticky gel that covers the drone. Dr. Eijiro Miyako of the Nanomaterials Research Institute in Japan and his colleagues experimented to see whether ionic liquid gel could collect pollen from one flower and deposit it on another. However, it was difficult to paint the gel on the slippery plastic of the robotic drone.

So, they attached horsehairs to the robotic drone and then added the ionic liquid gel. Scientists demonstrated on lily that the robotic pollinators could help alleviate the impact of declining honeybee population on pollinating crops. Miyako said the drones could learn the pollination paths with the help of artificial intelligence and global positioning systems (GPS).

Can drones do what animal pollinators have been doing for millions of years?

It’s only the beginning. Expanding the scope of the project from one tiny drone pollinating a large flower to a giant fleet of robotic pollinators would be challenging. For instance, in an orchard the drones need to know which flower to visit first to pick the pollen and then where to deliver it. Bees and other animal pollinators know it because they have been doing it for millions of years, and they are after food.

And then there is the question of how many drones a farmer would need to pollinate, say 100 acres? A large fleet of drones may cost farmers more than they can afford to pay. Also, many plants and trees have their flowers hidden among leaves. Can these drones navigate through the leaves to pick and deliver the pollen? Watermelons and pumpkins have their flowers under the leaves.

Even if scientists are able to scale it up, there will be other challenges such as how the drones can reload the fresh pollen once they have delivered the first payload.