Researchers in Japan have created insect-size drones that pollinate plants to replace — or at least help — real honeybees. The robot pollinators have animal hair on their backs and a special sticky gel that allows them to pick up and release pollen grains. But for now, they’re a long way from pollinating anything outdoors: the tiny drones are not autonomous, and have never been tested outside the lab.
Bees are not doing well. Bee populations in the US — and around the world — have declined rapidly in recent years, possibly because of pesticides, diseases, and climate change. That’s bad for agriculture and the economy: bees pollinate more than $15 billion-worth of crops in the US every year, including apples, berries, cucumbers, and almonds. Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have a lot of the food we rely on every day. Last year, the US declared as “endangered” seven species of Hawaiian bees, as well as the rusty-patched bumble bee that is native to the Midwest and East Coast.
The so-called Colony Collapse Disorder is in part what inspired researchers in Japan to create a robot bee, says Eijiro Miyako, a co-author of the study published today in the journal Chem. The artificial pollinator is made of a 1.6-by-1.6-inch drone equipped with animal hair to mimic the fuzzy body of a bee. Miyako then coated the hair with a sticky gel he created, and flew the remote-controlled drone into the flowers of pink-leaved Japanese lilies. The drone was able to pick up pollen like a natural pollinator. When flown into another flower, the drone released the pollen grains, successfully pollinating the plant.
This isn’t the first time scientists create artificial bees. In 2013, Harvard researchers unveiled the RoboBee, a tiny flying robot that can latch onto the underside of any flat surfaces by using static electricity. The artificial pollinators described in today’s study are manually controlled via a remote control. In the future, the researchers hope to use a combination of AI, GPS, and high-resolution cameras to create completely autonomous machines, Miyako wrote in an email to The Verge. They will then need to be tested on actual farms to see if they work outside the lab.
If this invention reminds you of that nightmarish Black Mirror episode where robot honeybees are hacked to kill people, don’t worry too much. Miyako says he’s never seen the TV show and he’s against any misuse of the robot bees. “Come on! All of the robots must be used for peace, right?”
This post has been updated with video.