Researchers say swarms of tiny drones may take the sting out of a troubling global problem – the collapse of bee populations.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 71 of the 100 crops that account for almost all the world’s food supply depend on bee pollination. Over the last year, 44 percent of the commercial bee population mysteriously died out. Without bees, we’re in trouble.
And while the mystery of dying colonies may not be resolved any time soon, scientists are developing drones that can pollinate flowers. In a recently published paper, a team led by chemist Eijiro Miyako of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology report that the application of horse hairs and ionic gel to an “off-the-shelf $100 quadcopter” can successfully mimic bee pollination across a species of Japanese lilies.
Because a larger swarm of drones can now be controlled by a single user (or an autonomous program), bee-like drones are now a possibility rather than a sci-fi scenario.
“The findings, which will have applications for agriculture and robotics, among others, could lead to the development of artificial pollinators and help counter the problems caused by declining honeybee populations,” Miyako said in a press release. “We believe that robotic pollinators could be trained to learn pollination paths using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence.”
The key to the Institute’s successful experiment comes down to the ionic gel. Miyako created the gel in 2007 to be used on electrical components. He considered the concoction a failure and it languished in a storage closet. A few years later, Miyako began to wonder if his gel could be used to carry pollen.
“This project is the result of serendipity,” says Miyako, who worked with postdoctoral fellow and first author Svetlana Chechetka. “We were surprised that after 8 years, the ionic gel didn’t degrade and was still so viscous. Conventional gels are mainly made of water and can’t be used for a long time, so we decided to use this material for research.”