Scientists pollinate flowers with insect-sized drones coated in sticky gel

Scientists in Japan say they've managed to turn an unassuming drone into a remote-controlled pollinator by attaching horsehairs coated with a special, sticky gel to its underbelly. They described their feat in the journal Chem.

Flowers looking to receive pollen from their male parts into another bloom's female parts often require an envoy to carry pollen. Make honey. But with their pollination workload lightened, maybe we could leave that one to the bees. The scientists aim to add Global Positioning System, artificial intelligence, and high resolution cameras to the small machines, which also need to crawl inside certain plants, as bees do. But pesticides, land clearing and climate change have caused declines in many of these creatures, creating problems for farmers.

Some of nature's most prolific pollinators are bees, but bee populations are declining around the world, and last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed a native species as endangered for the first time.

Thus, the decline of bees isn't just worrisome because it could disrupt ecosystems, but also because it could disrupt agriculture and the economy.

"One pollination technique requires the physical transfer of pollen with an artist's brush or cotton swab from male to female flowers", the authors wrote. GPS, high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence will be required for the drones to independently track their way between flowers and land on them correctly, though it will be some time before all that is in place. "Another approach uses a spray machine ... however machine pollination has a low pollination success rate".

Critics aren't so convinced pollinating drones is the best solution to the worrying bee crisis.

Miyako said this is the first instance of drones pollinating flowers, but the little machines aren't yet ready to zoom out into the world. To find out, researchers ordered a small drone online and souped it up with a strip of fuzz made from a horsehair paintbrush covered in a sticky gel. When it was rediscovered a decade later, it looked exactly the same - the gel hadn't dried up or degraded at all. "It's very hard using living organisms for real practical realizations, so I chose to change my approach and use robots", he said.

"I actually dropped the gel on the floor and I noticed it absorbed a lot of dust, and everything linked together in my mind", he told Live Science. Miyako realized this material could be very useful for picking up pollen grains. This mostly relies on pollen becoming stuck to the bodies of bees and other insects when they feed on flowers, and then being deposited on the next plant they visit.

The next step was to see if this worked with mechanical movers, as well.

The undersides of these artificial pollinators are coated with horse hairs and a gel that is just sticky enough to pick up pollen from one flower and deposit it onto another.

The scientists looked at the hairs under a scanning electron microscope and counted up the pollen grains attached to the surface.

He settled on a four-propeller drone, costing United States dollars 100, but simply placing the gel on its smooth, plastic surface would not be enough for it to effectively pick up pollen.Researchers used horse hair to mimic the fuzzy exterior of a bee.

A report published by NewsWeek has questioned if robotic pollinators can replace bees, "Pollination is complex task and should not be underrated".

  • Tracy Ferguson