Pollination Drones Seen as Assistants for Ailing Bees

Credit: Lilimey via Pixabay

March 27, 2018      

Spring is arriving in the Northern Hemisphere, which means we’ll soon be seeing swarms of insects flying around grabbing nectar and pollen. Or are those insects actually pollination drones?

Scientists estimate that 90% of the world’s wild plants and 30% of the world’s crops are cross-pollinated by bees, bats, birds, and other insects. But as populations of bees drop due to Colony Collapse Disorder, many researchers are turning to robotics as a possible alternative to help with mankind’s growing food needs.

Very small drones are developed in labs around the world to tackle this global issue by replicating bees’ role in pollination. When a bee sucks the nectar out of flowers, pollen sticks to its surface, which then gets deposited on other flowers, leading to reproduction. Earlier this month, U.S. retailer Walmart filed a patent for a “pollination drone” that could help pollinate crops the same way a bee would.

Here are some other developments in the world of robotic bees and insects over the past few years:

Sticky gel substitute for pollination drones

A team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan engineered the devices using a combination of horsehair, $100 drones, and a sticky ionic gel.

drone bee pollination

Japanese scientists glued horsehair to the bottom of this $100 pollination drone to create an artificial bee. (Credit: MIT Technology Review)

Eijio Miyako, a chemist at AIST, accidentally created the sticky ionic gel in 2007. The gel, which Miyako considered a failure, sat unused for a decade. When Miyako picked it up again recently, he was pleased to find that it was still sticky and figured it would be perfect for his new project.

AIST’s robot bee measures 4 x 4 cm (1.6 x 1.6 inches), and weighs no more than 15 grams (0.5 oz.). The quadcopter uses propellers to provide agility and balance. During the current experimental phase, the pollination drone is steered manually from one Japanese lily to the next.

Harvard continues to develop RoboBees

Researchers at Harvard University have been developing its RoboBees for the past five years. They’ve created robots that can fly, stick to walls, and even dive into water. One of the latest developments is the creation of a hybrid RoboBee that can do all three.

While engineers have had success building tiny, insect-like robots, programming pollination drones to behave autonomously like real insects continues to present technical challenges. Engineers have recently been experimenting with a new type of programming that mimics the way an insect’s brain works.

A team at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have successfully tested an autonomous, robotic bug that can fly.

Possessing the same size, mass, and weight of a large house fly or bumble bee, the pollination drone could eventually fly around in large swarms to assist humans in agricultural production.

“But that is still 20 to 30 years away,” said Prof. Robert Wood, who leads the Harvard team of researchers and students responsible for creating and testing the robot bee. “For now, it is tethered to a power source and controlled by a computer inside a lab.”

One of the team’s initial goals was get the drone to hover, which proved exceedingly difficult because the fragile robots are unstable. Wood said the robot can now fly up to 10 seconds before breaking.

Robot dragonflies

A team at the Technical University of Delft (TUD) in The Netherlands is working on drones that will autonomously recognize flowers, land on them, and pollinate them, said assistant professor Guido de Croon.

“We use robot dragonflies which mimic insects flying by flapping their wings,” he said. “This will be beneficial once miniaturization of these drones has taken place. They’ll be able to fly longer without recharging.”

For commercial use on larger agricultural plots, large quantities of pollination drones are required.

“More drones will speed up pollination, but the drones will need to communicate with each other to avoid collisions,” de Croon said. “We managed to do that last month. This development will be available for commercial use in about five years.”

Apart from pollination, the drone swarms will also be able to take pictures in greenhouses to determine which areas need more water or fewer pesticides, he said.

Putting backpacks on real dragonflies

Draper robot dragonfly

The Draper DragonflEYE project aims to put tiny ‘backpacks’ on real dragonflies. Credit: Draper

While pollination drones are being developed to copy bee functions, some researchers are taking another route – they’re equipping live dragonflies with a tiny backpack that creates a hybrid drone for use in navigation.

The DragonflEye internal research and development project at Draper uses optogenetics that can switch neurons on or off on the dragonfly. A tiny backpack on the live dragonfly sends flashes of light to the insect’s central nervous system. These activate particular navigational neurons and give scientists control over the dragonfly’s movement, the research project states.

Scientists at Draper say applications for the DragonflEye drone include “guided pollination, payload delivery, reconnaissance, and even precision medicine and diagnostics.”

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