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Published: Sat, February 11, 2017
Science | By Guadalupe Butler

Scientists made drones that can pollinate plants so bees don't have to

Scientists made drones that can pollinate plants so bees don't have to

The scientist had been attempting to make fluids that could be used to conduct electricity, and one attempt left him with a gel that was as sticky as hair wax. He and his colleagues chose a four-propeller drone whose retail value was $100, and attached horsehairs to its smooth surface to mimic a bee's fuzzy body.

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.

Inspired by the recent decline in honeybee populations, Dr. Eijiro Miyako explored whether the gel was just sticky enough to pick up and deliver pollen. But the sticky gel he created failed, so he shoved it into a cabinet in an uncapped bottle and forgot about it. Paper co-author Eijiro Miyako told Gizmodo, "TV programs about the pollination crisis, honey bee decline, and the latest robotics emotionally motivated me". "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 chose to use this material for research'. More pollen stuck to the ants with gel than the ones without.

However, they were not able to paint the gel on the plastic part of the little drone they were using in the first place.

The ants that had the goo on them were more likely to have pollen stick to them than ones that didn't.

In separate experiments using houseflies, the gel was also found to have a camouflage effect - changing color in response to different sources of light - which could help artificial pollinators avoid predators.

Miyako does not think such drones would replace bees altogether, but could simply help bees with their pollinating duties.

Numbers of pollinating insects have been decreasing over time, with one type of North American bumble bee listed as an endangered species a year ago.

But a stroke of luck has led researchers to a depressing backup plan if we let our pesticides kill off all the bees. "Creating a pollinator habitat within or adjacent to crop fields, can provide many other benefits, including providing habitat for natural enemies of crop pests, carbon sequestration, erosion control and support of plant and other biodiversity". During the study, the drone flew between Japanese lily flowers, collecting and dispersing pollen.

This artificially pollinated the plants and caused them to begin the process of producing seeds. "We believe that robotic pollinators could be trained to learn pollination paths using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence".

With a small, low-priced store-bought drone in hand, the next step was to test whether it could be slathered with the gel and used as a kind of robo-bee.

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