Fleets of flying robots could pollinate crops | Science News for Students

Fleets of flying robots could pollinate crops

Sticky hair lets these drones capture pollen as honeybees do
Apr 10, 2017 — 7:10 am EST
pollinator drone

Flitting drones, like the one in this illustration, might one day stand in for bees and other insects to pollinate flowers and crops.


Eijiro Miyako gets emotional about the decline of honeybees. These insects help pollinate both food crops and wild plants. But their numbers are shrinking worldwide. Habitat loss, disease and exposure to pesticides are some of the reasons. Miyako remembers thinking: “I need to create something to solve this problem.” And now he has.

He found the answer in an 8-year-old jar in his lab.

Miyako is a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan. He became passionate about the loss of pollinators after watching a TV documentary. It showed him the value of pollination. It also motivated him to take action.

In 2007, he had tried to make a gel that conducts electricity. But it was “a complete failure,” he recalls. So he poured the liquid into a jar, put it in a drawer and forgot about it. Cleaning out his lab in 2015, he accidentally dropped the jar and broke it.

drone hair
With a swatch of sticky hair, this drone can fill in for bees, picking up pollen from one flower and leaving it on another.

Surprisingly, the gel was still sticky. It even picked up dust from the floor. Miyako realized that the way the gel captured dust was similar to how the hairs on honeybees trap pollen. At that point, a lightbulb went off in his head. Might this be the key to artificial pollination?

To find out, he investigated whether non-pollinating insects might help him do the job. He dabbed his gel onto ants and set them loose in a box of tulips. The ants were coated with pollen after three days.

Still, Miyako worried that predators would snack on his new pollinators. After all, ants don’t have stingers to protect themselves the way that honeybees do. To give his pollinators camouflage, he mixed four more chemicals into the gel. He used compounds that change under ultraviolet light, such as the light from the sun.

This time he turned to flies. He placed a droplet of the new concoction onto their backs. Then he set the insects in front of blue paper. Under ultraviolet light, the gel changed from clear to blue, mimicking the color of the backdrop. This chemical invisibility cloak might protect insects when they’re flying against a blue sky, the chemist thought.

But Miyako wanted a pollinator that wouldn’t wander off at the first scent of a picnic. In other words, he wanted a pollinator he could control. And that’s when his mind turned to drones.

The researcher bought 10 kiwi-sized flying robots. He taught himself to fly them. It wasn’t easy. Along the way he broke all but one. Then he covered the bottom of the surviving drone with short horsehair. He used electricity to make this hair stand up. Adding his gel to the horsehair made it sticky, like bee fuzz.

Story continues below video

Eijiro Miyako’s drone takes off and zooms into Japanese lilies, picking up and depositing pollen with a sticky gel coating on its bottom. He hopes drones like this one can someday help bees and other pollinating insects.

In tests so far, this drone has successfully pollinated Japanese lilies more than a third of the time. The drone brushes up against one flower to collect pollen, then flies into another to knock the grains off. Miyako’s team reported its results in the February 9 issue of Chem.

Miyako is glad he saved that failed gel. He thinks it is possible to create a fleet of 100 drones. With GPS and artificial intelligence, he suspects he could deploy them to join bees or other insects in pollinating flowers. “It’s not science fiction,” his tests show.

pollen tubes
This microscopic image shows tubes growing from the pollen grains of lilies. That means the drones successfully pollinated these flowers.

Power Words

camouflage     Hiding people or objects from an enemy by making them appear to be part of the natural surroundings. Animals can also use camouflage patterns on their skin, hide or fur to hide from predators.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical can also be used as an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

cloak     Something that covers an object or hides it.

compound     (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed when two or more chemical elements unite (bond) in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

drone     A remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft or missile.

electricity     A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

gel     A gooey or viscous material that can flow like a thick liquid.

GPS     Abbreviation for global positioning system. This system uses devices that can calculate their position (in terms of latitude and longitude) from any place on the ground or in the air. They do this by comparing how long it takes signals from different satellites to reach them.

habitat     The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

pesticide     A chemical or mix of compounds used to kill insects, rodents or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants, pet or livestock, or unwanted organisms that infest homes, offices, farm buildings and other protected structures.

pollen     Powdery grains released by the male parts of flowers that can fertilize the female tissue in other flowers. Pollinating insects, such as bees, often pick up pollen that will later be eaten.

pollinator     Something that carries pollen, a plant’s male reproductive cells, to the female parts of a flower, allowing fertilization. Many pollinators are insects such as bees.

predator     (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

robot     A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.

science fiction     A field of literary or filmed stories that take place against a backdrop of fantasy, usually based on speculations about how science and engineering will direct developments in the distant future. The plots in many of these stories focus on space travel, exaggerated changes attributed to evolution or life in (or on) alien worlds.

ultraviolet light     A type of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength from 10 nanometers to 380 nanometers. The wavelengths are shorter than that of visible light but longer than X-rays.


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Journal: S. A. Chechetka et al. Materially engineered artificial pollinators. Chem. Published online February 9, 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.chempr.2017.01.008.