As concern over dwindling bee populations mounts, a team of chemists at a Japanese institution came up with a robotic solution. They designed pollinating drones: tiny machines that grab and deposit pollen in flowers. The scientists hope their drones won’t utterly replace bees, but would instead take some of the pressure off the remaining pollinators should more perish.
Chemists from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology designed the little drones. On the underside of a two-inch G-Force PXY CAM drone they attached animal hair, and covered it in sticky gel. When the altered machines brushed up against Japanese lilies, they were able to pick up and drop off pollen.
The journal Chem published a study this week about the advance. Paper co-author Eijiro Miyako told Gizmodo, “TV programs about the pollination crisis, honey bee decline, and the latest robotics emotionally motivated me. I thought we urgently needed to create something for these problems.”
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. The scientists aim to add GPS, artificial intelligence, and high resolution cameras to the small machines, which also need to crawl inside certain plants, as bees do.
Critics aren’t so convinced pollinating drones is the best solution to the worrying bee crisis. Biologist David Goulson of the United Kingdom’s University of Sussex wrote a blog post on the topic and said, “I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that.”
Goulson said there are roughly 3.2 trillion bees – which feed themselves at no cost to us but also give us honey – and argued to replace them with machines would be incredibly expensive. Gizmodo points out it could cost $100 per bee to employ pollinating drones. Plus, unless the machines could be made biodegradable, Goulson said we’d potentially experience a huge amount of drone litter.