Japanese tinkerers created a tiny, flower-pollinating drone for a world without insects.
Could there be anything gloomier to think about than a mechanical bee?
It’s a sad fact—bee populations are in decline in many parts of the world. While the reasons bees are in trouble aren’t yet well understood, the problem has some technologists investigating whether drones could fly flower-spreading pollen instead.
The latest effort comes from Japan, where investigators at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, in Tsukuba, were looking for new uses for sticky substances called ionic liquid gels that have unusual physical properties.
To make their pollinator, the team purchased $100 drones from Amazon and then added patches of horsehair to their undersides. After painting on the gels, which are moist and are about as sticky as a Post-It note, the drones were ready to grab and release pollen grains.
As shown in the video above, the researchers flew the drones smack into the male and female parts of pink and white Japanese lilies. It’s the first time a drone has pollinated a flower, according to project leader Eijiro Miyako.
The invention is still no replacement for the bumblebee. According to Joe Traynor, a “bee broker” in California, the almond industry in that state alone requires 1.8 million hives—containing around 35 billion bees—to pollinate almost a million acres of almond trees that each year sprout some three trillion flowers.
“I don’t see any technology that could replace bees,” says Traynor.