In an example of life imitating art, scientists have come up with a technology straight out of an episode of Black Mirror: Bee-like pollinating drones.
A team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan engineered the devices using a combination of horsehair, $USD 100 drones and a sticky ion gel.
It’s pretty simple really – first, the drones fly into flowers much like a bee would. Inside the flower, pollen gets stuck to the drone due to the combination of the ion gel and horsehair. That same pollen is then shaken off into the next flower, and so on. It’s just your run of the mill birds and the
Popular Mechanics reports that Eijio Miyako, a chemist at AIST actually created the sticky ion gel by accident 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.
Miyako is now the project leader behind the “Robo-bees”. In the video above, you can see the first time that a drone has successfully pollinated a flower, in this case Japanese lilies. Blink and you’ll miss it!
Watch the video in the player above
“What’s wrong with regular bees?” you may ask.
The answer is “nothing”, except for the fact that they have reportedly been dying at an unprecedented rate. Although the death of bees was a mystery at first, we now have a better idea of why it’s happening. And as usual, it looks like we are to blame. Predictable.
In 2014, Time reported on a study from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It found that pesticides were the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is the phenomenon in which worker bees just suddenly up and leave a colony without warning. The pesticides in question are those that contain neonicotinoids (NNIs) and they are partially or completely banned in the EU, Canada and the U.S.
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Another factor could be climate change. A 2015 study published in the journal Science showed that dozens of bumblebee species in the U.S had been affected by loss of habitat and increases in temperature.
According to The Australasian Beekeeper, honey bee populations in Australia are also in crisis. Bee numbers are at an all-time low and commercial beekeepers are battling bee diseases with antibiotics that may contaminate our honey.
Australasian Beekeeper also points out that over 900 peer-reviewed studies have indicated that NNIs are having negative effects on pollinators. In 2014, our government looked into it conducting this report on NNIs and bee health. However, today NNIs are still legal and widely used here.
In the aforementioned episode of Black Mirror, the Robo-bees inevitably were hacked, turned on humanity and started offing people. We’re still pretty far away from that scenario as the drones created at AIST lack intelligence and are pretty hard to pilot. Robots will have to save us before they can kill us.
Isn’t this a clear case of prevention being better than cure, though?
We already have great pollinators on Earth – they are called bees. So instead of building drones that replicate their behaviour, perhaps we should focus on saving the ones we’ve already got. Otherwise, we could be working on “Robo-trees” next.