Before you giggle at the notion that a robotic bee-like technology serves as a disruptive technological innovation, consider just how much bees mean to humans. Their importance in pollinating the crops that humans need to eat, thus facilitating the growth and germination of said crops, is undeniable. But, they are dying at a rapid rate, and the tech world has now begun to search for answers to the massive problem that is posed by a world without the honey bee.
The primary function that bees serve to flowers is facilitating the act of cross-pollination. By transferring pollen from the male part of a flower or plant, known as the stamens, to the female part, called the pistil, the bee plays the role of conduit for plants’ reproductive processes. For flowers, bees serve as the ultimate wingmen, both literally and metaphorically, and their widespread demise due to a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder has inspired one Japanese university to take action.
Eijiro Miyako, of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is leading a team of colleagues on a mission to find a pollinating replacement should the honey bee decline not turn around. Their answer, in short, is the drone. In this case, it’s a micro-sized drone that flies from one flower to the next, equipped with horse hair covered in an adhesive gel.
Four centimeters wide and weighing in at only 15 grams, the drone is small and nimble enough to interact with delicate flowers. And, Miyako’s team found that in test runs, the manually-piloted drone did not damage either the male or female parts of the flower, while successfully completing cross-pollination. Still, many are skeptical, because such a device would seemingly need complete autonomous capabilities to be able to make up for the decline in honey bees in any realistic scope.
On top of more practical arguments, such as costs to smaller farms, said Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at the University of California-Riverside. I would not like to live in a world where bees are replaced by plastic machines. Let's focus on protecting the biodiversity we still have left.
But, with Miyako’s team working on a completely autonomous version of the drone, we may have to accept that bees being replaced by plastic drones is unavoidable. After all, it’s a rosier reality than the prospect of crops and plants going un-pollinated altogether. And, for now, they’re not mutually exclusive as a solution to a growing problem.
We hope this will help to counter the problem of bee declines, said Miyako. But importantly, bees and drones should be used together.