Japan develops drone bees

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Failed previous experiment leads to invention of artificial pollinators

Researchers in Japan have developed insect-sized drones that can pollinate flowers, a fortuitous result of an experiment gone wrong that could be a partial answer to the alarming global loss of bee populations.

Lead researcher Dr. Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) Nanomaterial Research Institute, explained in an email to The Manila Times that the discovery was inspired by an experiment he conducted in 2007 while researching liquids that could be used as electrical conductors.

“This project is the result of serendipity,” explained Miyako. He had created an ionic gel “as sticky as hair wax” that he considered a failure, and he put the concoction aside in a storage cabinet in an uncapped jar.

During a lab clean up last year, the substance was rediscovered practically unchanged from sitting for so long, he said. “We were surprised that after eight years, the ionic gel didn’t degrade and was still so viscous.

Conventional gels are mainly made of water and can’t be used for a long time, so we decided to use this material for research.”

Miyako and his co-author Dr. Svetlana Chechetka began to explore uses for the gel, and after reading some research on robotic insects and the rapid decline of honeybee populations in many parts of the world, decided to see if it could be used to collect pollen.

To determine whether the gel could grasp onto pollen, Miyako collected ants around his institute, put a droplet of the ionic gel on their bodies, and placed them in a box of tulips. Compared with ants that did not have the material applied, the ants with the gel were more likely to have pollen attached to their bodies, he said.

In another experiment using houseflies, Miyako discovered that the gel also had a camouflage effect—changing color in response to different sources of light—which could help artificial pollinators avoid predation.

Using a tiny, four-propeller drone that he purchased for about $100, Miyako then tried to transfer pollen from one flower to another using lilies.

To improve the drone’s pollen-carrying ability, Miyako and Chechetka collaborated with AIST colleagues Masayoshi Tange and Yue Yu on using horsehair to mimic the fuzzy exterior of a bee. “The bristles create more surface area for pollen to adhere to and generate electric charge to keep the grains in place,” Miyako explained.

Miyako’s team flew the remote-controlled drones, with hairs and gel attached, over the flowers of pink-leaved Japanese lilies (Lilium japonicum). The robots absorbed the pollen and then could be flown to a second flower, where the grains were deposited, artificially pollinating the plants and causing them to begin the process of producing seeds. Drones without the gel and hair components did not have this effect, he said.

“The findings, which will have applications for agriculture and robotics, among others, could lead to the development of artificial pollinators and help counter the problems caused by declining honeybee populations,” Miyako wrote in the research report, which was published in the journal Chem. “We believe that robotic pollinators could be trained to learn pollination paths using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence.”

The researchers explained that the “artificial bees” need further development, and would not be a replacement for natural honeybees, but rather help to relieve the stress on bee populations.

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