Inspired by concerns over honeybees and news reports on robotic insects, Miyako began to explore, by using houseflies and ants, whether the gel could work to pick up pollen.
The breakthrough this group had was using a sticky pollen-grabbing gel that Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, has stumbled upon accidentally a decade ago.
In order for plants to reproduce, the stamen, which are male parts of the flower, produce pollen which fertilises the pistils, the female parts.
They flew the little drones-with hair and gel attached-over the flowers of pink-leaved Japanese lilies. The drone could successfully pick up pollen from one flower and release it into another. "Unfortunately, this requires much time and effort". In a study published February 9 in the journal Chem, the researchers announced they've developed remote-controlled drones that buzz up to flowers and give them a fly-by kiss that can both collect and distribute pollen, much like bees do when they go to collect nectar.
Globally, an estimated 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices and medicines must be pollinated by animals, including apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds and tequila, according to Pollinator Partnership.
One of the attempts generated a gel as sticky as hair wax, which the researchers considered a failure. Clearly this wouldn't do, and so Miyako stuck it in a storage cabinet in an uncapped bottle.
And better yet, Miyako noticed that when the gel was dropped on the floor it picked up an unusual amount of dust.
The next step to robo-bees required a flying object, so the team bought a tiny $100 drone with four propellers and placed a strip of coarse bristles to mimic the fuzziness of bee hairs.
Compared with ants that didn't have the material applied, the ants with the gel were more likely to have pollen attached to their bodies. That gives the pollen more surface area to cling to, and creates a touch of static electricity to keep it there. To find out, researchers ordered a small drone online and souped it up with a strip of fuzz made from a horsehair paintbrush covered in a sticky gel.
Far from replacing bees, the researchers hope that the drones could help carry the burden that modern agriculture has placed on bees, and in turn benefit farmers.
Right now it's not practical to let loose in the wild, since the drones require a human remote control.
"In combination is the best way", he said. The drones will likely require Global Positioning System, high-resolution cameras, as well as artificial intelligence to independently make their way to the flowers and land on the correct sports.
There's a lot of work to be done before this is a reality, however.