The latest service to be revolutionised by drones might not be package delivery or internet connections but the far more valuable service of pollination. Researchers in Japan have been exploring the potential of using miniature drones covered with sticky hairs to act like robotic bees to counter the decline of natural pollinators.
Writing in a paper in the journal Chem, the team demonstrated their drone on an open bamboo lily (Lilium japonicum) flower. With a bit of practice, the device could pick up 41% of the pollen available within three landings and successfully pollinated the flower in 53 out of 100 attempts. It used a patch of hairs augmented with a non-toxic ionic liquid gel that used static electricity and stickiness to be able to “lift and stick” the pollen. Although the drone was manually operated in this study, the team stated that by adding artificial intelligence and GPS, it could learn to forage for and pollinate plants on its own.
But it takes more than just sticky hairs to be a good pollinator. As someone who studies pollinating insects, I think these drones have a lot of catching up to do to match our existing pollinators, which include bees, butterflies and even some larger animals, in all their diversity. But it is always good to see science learning from nature and these studies also help us to appreciate the wonders of what nature has already provided.
Pollination is complex task and should not be underrated. It involves finding flowers and deciding if they are suitable and haven’t already been visited. The pollinator then needs to successfully handle the flower, picking pollen up and putting it down in another plant, while co-ordinating with its team and optimising its route between flowers. In all of these tasks, our existing pollinators excel, their skills honed through millions of years of evolution. In some cases, our technology can match them and in others it has some way to go.