The future is now: drones are now pollinating real flowers.
Indeed, researchers from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have recently outfitted a tiny drone with horse hair brush bristles and successfully pollinated a real flower.
“This is the world’s first demonstration of pollination by an artificial robotic pollinator,” Eijiro Miyako, a study author, told CNN.
The study is published in the scientific journal Chem.
A special sort of non-drying gel stands behind the pollination’s success. The researchers applied the gel to the horse hair bristles, which the remote controlled drone then placed on the appropriate area on the flower to capture the pollen.
“Conventional gels are mainly made of water, so they evaporate quickly, which makes them useless for this application. Our sticky gel does not evaporate even if put in a vacuum or a hot oven,” Miyako said. “I believe that some form of artificial intelligence and GPS would be very useful for the development of such automatic machines in future.”
The fact that the drone has to be controlled by a human operator has naysayers scoffing at the idea that drones could replace the role of pollinators in the $235 billion to $577 billion per year food industry, CNN reports.
“There is little chance this can replace pollinators,” Christina Grozinger, the director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State University, told CNN.
“Pollinators have evolved specialized behaviors to work with different kinds of flowers,” Grozinger said. “The proposed artificial pollinator does not have any of these specialized behaviors, and thus really can only ‘pollinate’ flowers that are extremely easy to pollinate.”
Still, the Japanese researchers used a hundred dollar drone and off-the-shelf retail materials to pull off this feat, so more innovation is a given. And besides, it’s always nice to have a backup plan in case all the bees die.