Bees and pollen are associated with a variety of irritations, but together they play a key role in crop production and global agriculture. Unfortunately, bee populations have been declining over the past decade. In response to the threat posed to the world’s food supply, scientists from Japan have been working to develop a robotic bee that can pollinate flowers just like a real honeybee. These scientists have recently developed a gel that facilitates pollination when placed on the hairy underbelly of a small, bee-masquerading drone.
While the concept is off to a great start, several important challenges still need to be addressed. Remote controls can be used to pilot individual drones, but “swarms” of autonomous robot bees are difficult to coordinate. Researchers are currently studying insect behavior to improve the drones ability to find pollen sites, pollinate individual flowers, and avoid flying into one another.
Another set of issues emerge when robot bees are released into the wild. For example, a drone bee’s power source must be small enough to avoid impeding maneuverability, yet large enough to allow the drone to fly for a reasonable amount of time. Researchers must also study and mitigate any potentially disruptive effects the drones may have on the behavior of natural pollinators.
Modern robotics is poised to tackle any remaining scientific hurdles to producing pollinating drones. We may be limited to honeybees and bumblebees for now, but it is only a short while before “robobees” will become a reality.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Julia Ebert, a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at Harvard University, for providing her expertise and commentary on the topic.
Managing Correspondent: Christopher Gerry
Original Research: Materially Engineered Artificial Pollinators – Chem
Media Coverage: As bee populations dwindle, robot bees may pick up some of their pollination slack – Los Angeles Times