In an attempt to make up for declining bee populations, researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan have created drones that are able to both pick up and deposit pollen, a new study in the journal Chem reports.
Over the past decade, bees have been dying at an alarming rate, and that worrying trend shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, scientists across the world believe that crop production — which depends on pollination — could suffer in the coming years.
The team in the study hopes their new drones will help solve this problem. While researchers do not believe the machines will replace natural pollinators, they do think it could work to assist them with their normal tasks.
To begin their testing, scientists coated numerous insects in an ionic liquid gel — a mixture of complex molecules connected by long chains. They then put the insects near flowers and found that the gel trapped in pollen grains no matter what insect it was on, Gizmodo reports. This is important because, while bees are the most well-known pollinators, there are over 200,000 pollinator species around the world.
After seeing the success of the gel, researchers glued animal hair to the bottom of 2-inch G-Force PXY CAM remote-controlled drones and then covered it in the sticky substance. This allowed the machines to both pick up and drop off pollen grains by knocking into flowers, effectively turning them into pollination devices.
However, there is still a long way to go before the drones are ready to be used in the wild. Not only did the team only test the robots on one kind of flower, they are still quite hard to control.
“A certain amount of practice with remote control of the artificial pollinator is necessary,” the study authors noted, according to The Los Angeles Times.
More tests need to be conducted to see if the devices are able to pollinate the crops that need it the most. In addition, the machines are expensive. At their current price, it would cost roughly $100 to replace each bee. Lowering that cost is one of the team’s top priorities.
Regardless of potential setbacks, scientists believe that pollination is a pressing and important issue. A report put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that almost 70 percent of crops across the world is pollinated by insects. This means it is important to have a plan in place should insect populations decline even further than they already have. The drones could very well be part of that plan.
“This is a proof of concept — there’s nothing compared to this. It’s a totally first-time demonstration,” said study leader Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, according to Live Science. “Some robots are expected to be used for experiments in pollination, but no one has tried yet.”