Fleets of drones could pollinate future crops

A forgotten, failed experiment sent a robot airborne

illustration of a pollinator drone in action

ALL ABUZZ  Flitting drones (illustrated above) might one day help bees and other insects pollinate flowers and crops, according to chemist Eijiro Miyako.

Eijiro Miyako

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Eijiro Miyako gets emotional about the decline of honeybees.

“We need pollination,” he says. “If that system is collapsed, it’s terrible.”

Insects, especially bees, help pollinate both food crops and wild plants. But pollinators are declining worldwide due to habitat loss, disease and exposure to pesticides, among other factors (SN: 1/23/16, p. 16).

Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, became passionate about the loss of pollinators after watching a TV documentary. He remembers thinking: “I need to create something to solve this problem.”

His answer was in an 8-year-old jar in his lab.

In 2007, he had tried to make a gel that conducts electricity, but it was “a complete failure,” he says. So he poured the liquid into a jar, put it in a drawer and forgot about it. Cleaning out his lab in 2015, he accidentally dropped and broke the jar.

pollinator drone
STICKY HAIRS With a swatch of gel-slathered horsehair, this drone can fill in for bees, picking up pollen from one flower and depositing it on another. E. Miyako

Surprisingly, the gel was still sticky and picked up dust from the floor. Miyako realized that the gel’s ability to capture the tiny particles was similar to how honeybee body hairs trap pollen. His thoughts jumped to artificial pollination.

First, he investigated whether non-pollinating insects could help do the job. He dabbed his gel onto ants and set them loose in a box of tulips. The ants were coated with pollen after three days.

Still, Miyako worried that predators would snack on his insect pollinators. To give them camouflage, he mixed four light-reactive compounds into the gel. He tested the new concoction on flies, placing a droplet on their backs and setting the insects in front of blue paper. Under ultraviolet light, the gel changed from clear to blue, mimicking the color of the backdrop.

Though this chemical invisibility cloak might protect the insects, Miyako wanted a pollinator that could be controlled and wouldn’t wander off at the first scent of a picnic.

He bought 10 kiwi-sized drones and taught himself to fly them, breaking all but one in the process. Miyako covered the bottom of the surviving drone with short horsehair, using electricity to make the hair stand up. Adding his gel made the horsehair work like bee fuzz.

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pollen tubes in lillies
PLANT PREGNANCY TEST Growth in the pollen tubes of lilies (shown in this fluorescent microscopy image) indicate that the drones successfully pollinated the flowers. S. A. Chechetka et al/Chem 2017

In tests so far, the drone has successfully pollinated Japanese lilies more than a third of the time, brushing up against one flower to collect pollen, then flying into another to knock the grains off, his team reports in the Feb. 9 Chem.

Glad he saved that failed gel, Miyako thinks it is possible to automate a fleet of 100 drones, using GPS and artificial intelligence, to pollinate alongside bees and other insects. “It’s not science fiction,” he says.

ROBO-POLLINATOR Eijiro Miyako’s drone takes off and zooms into Japanese lilies, picking up and depositing pollen with a special sticky gel coated on its bottom. He hopes to use drones like this one to aid bees and other pollinating insects. Dr. Eijiro Miyako

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