Concerned about declining bee populations, technologists are devising artificial pollination solutions using tiny drones.
A tiny drone buzzes across a garden. It briefly pauses on a flower to collect its pollen before continuing on to the next plant. At a time when many of nature’s pollinators are dying off, could the future of the global food supply rest on these miniature flying robots?
Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the Nanomaterials Research Institute of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, seems to think so.
That’s why he built a small drone capable of artificially pollinating plants. Equipped with a sticky gel and some horsehair on its belly, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can catch and release pollen grains as it moves from plant to plant.
“This drone project is one of my lifeworks for saving the world,” said Miyako, a tenured senior researcher. “I believe it will possibly revolutionize agriculture. I believe it will also be a game-changing technology in the near future. That’s my dream as a scientist.”
His proof of concept used a toy drone, purchased from Amazon, to pollinate Japanese lilies. In theory, these robotic pollinators could soon operate autonomously using artificial intelligence (AI) and GPS to work together to pollinate a garden or a farm en masse.
While Miyako admits that the technology is still in its infancy, his prototype comes at an important juncture for pollinators.
Bees are declining at a dangerous rate with possible causes including habitat loss, pesticides, pollution, invasive species, pathogens and climate change, according to a United Nations group. This population drop is a cause for alarm because bees are vital to the global food supply.
Approximately 75 percent of the world’s food depends on pollination by more than 20,000 species of bees, plus other pollinators including flies, butterflies, beetles, moths, wasps, birds and bats. Nature’s pollinators also sustain nearly 90 percent of the planet’s wild flora, so the bee decline is leaving the world’s ecological diversity in potential limbo.
Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex who has been studying bumblebees for the last 25 years, explained why bee populations are decreasing.
“You’ve got bees that are hungry, infected with foreign diseases and are being poisoned all at the same time,” said Goulson. “It’s not really surprising that sometimes they die. It’s the combination of stresses that’s killing them.”
Beekeepers are beginning to witness the effects of these factors firsthand. Kenneth Boyce, a beekeeper based in Central New York, has seen one invading pest jeopardize his hives. Varroa mite, a parasite that originated in Asia and then spread throughout the world among bee populations with no immunity, is considered one cause of colony collapse disorder.
“It’s much harder to keep bees nowadays than it was in the past,” said Boyce who has been beekeeping for 17 years now.
“We had losses of 10-15 percent per year. Now with Varroa on hand, and the viruses that they vector, losses of 60-70-80 percent isn’t unheard of,” said Boyce.
“That’s on a yearly basis and it’s awfully hard to sustain your population of bees when you’re having annual losses of over 50 percent.”
In the wake of bee population decline, other problem-solving minds have come to the table. Anna Haldewang learned about issues inflicting bees while watching the documentary Vanishing of the Bees. Inspired by the plight of the bee, the then-student at Savannah College of Art and Design focused her school industrial design project on the issue.
“It’s sad when there’s something that’s so small and doesn’t have a voice and we’re frantically trying to figure out why they’re declining. I thought, ‘Gosh, I really want to design something for this,’” said Haldewang.
The result, entitled Plan Bee, also examines the possibility of artificially pollinating plants with a drone. Unlike Miyako’s prototype, which uses a sticking method to accumulate pollen, Haldewang’s design will attempt to gather pollen with suction.
For Haldewang, the solution is more than just about pollination. It’s about creating a connection between a person, the drone and nature in a way that helps bring awareness to the bee’s predicament. Her model is inspired by the color of the bee and the forms that surround the insect.
“It’s in the shape of a hexagon and that shape pays homage back to the hive. And if you turn the drone upside down it looks like a flower,” said the recent college graduate.
Plan Bee is currently in development and Haldewang hopes to have her design out in the next few years.
Saving the Bees
While both Haldewang’s design and Miyako’s prototype hope to take a load off a beleaguered population of bees, their ideas are not without skeptics.
Goulson questions the costs, resources and environmental impact of building an army of robotic pollinators. The professor claims it would take a fleet of at least 3 trillion drones just to replace just honeybees.
He hopes people never write off bees and focus instead on conserving the Earth’s living insects, arguing that society has a moral obligation to look after the environment and the organisms with which humans share the planet.
“They give us honey as well. Why would we want to replace them with robots?”
Haldewang, however, doesn’t envision her design as a replacement for bees.
“Technology can be an extraordinary complement to us and nature, and my goal is to show that both can work in harmony.”
Feature photo courtesy of Anna Haldewang.