New Technology / Andrew Van Offeren

To combat declining bee populations around the world, a team of researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science in Tsukuba, Japan have created the first steps toward robot pollinators. Their idea is an insect sized drone that is capable of artificial pollination. These drones would contain a small patch of horse hair bristles which would be covered in a gel that is sticky enough to pick up pollen but not so adhesive as to not let the pollen go. The gel was actually found to be useful for this purpose by accident. It was created years ago in a failed attempt to create electrically conductive liquids, and then was stored away. Years later, the researchers found that this gel hadn’t dried out or lost its adhesive properties, which is ideal for pollen transferring purposes.

Eijiro Miyako, a lead researcher for this project, conducted a few experiments to test the effectiveness of this gel. In one experiment they placed ants in a box of tulips, one group of ants were given a drop of the gel on their backs, while the other group had nothing applied. They found that the ants with the gel applied picked up far more pollen than the ants that had nothing.

Miyako was more interested in how this gel could be applied to drones, however. On a small bee sized drone, researchers applied this gel to a small batch of horse hair. This is meant to mimic the hair of bees, which plays an important role in increasing the amount of surface area that pollen can stick to.

But it’s a work in progress. In an experiment in which researchers attempted to pollinate a flower 100 times, the drones were successful only 37 percent of the time. Since these drones are not autonomous, difficulties in manually piloting the drone contributed to the low success rate. Miyako wants to incorporate artificial intelligence and GPS technologies in future prototypes. And while some aren’t excited at the idea of these new technologies replacing bees, there is optimism around the potential for drones to deliver pesticides in a more precise manner.

Video of the drone in use…

There is a lot of scepticism revolving around the world of artificial pollination. There are 20,000 species of bees in the world, each with unique aspects that help them to specialize in pollinating certain flowers. How could this diversity be met by an army of robots? Many have argued that it makes more sense to protect our current bee populations rather than substituting them with new technologies. Miyako sees his work more as a companion to the bee, not a replacement.

I think the idea of drones delivering pesticides to commercial crops is intriguing, as pesticides are huge in the decline of bee populations. So to be able to take bees out of that scenario and deliver pesticides in a more precise way, it seems like a win win scenario. But I find the idea of robot pollinators as a replacement to bees very concerning. Who owns the drones? To put the power of pollination in the hands of corporations is a scary, scary thought. Pollination contributes to so many aspects of our lives that I think we would be at the mercy of whoever owns the drones.