Environmental Laboratory

  • Can Drones Pollinate Plants?

Can Drones Pollinate Plants?

Jul 16 2020 Read 451 Times

The world’s pollinator population is under threat. Thanks to a damaging combination of climate change, habitat degradation and other detrimental impacts of anthropogenic activity, bees and other pollinating insects have seen their numbers fall across the globe. Since many plants rely on cross-pollination to thrive – including crops grown from human consumption – the decline of pollinators spells disastrous news for all of us.

Aware of the growing problem, the scientific community has been searching for a viable solution for some time now. In Japan, one research team believe they may have found it in the form of a drone armed with a bubble gun. Their invention, detailed in a paper published in the journal iScience, uses relatively unsophisticated technology to come up with an ingenious answer to the issue.

Tricky problem, simple solution

Over recent years, our knowledge of floral pollination has increased significantly– but unfortunately, our detrimental impact on those responsible for carrying out such essential work has also become more pronounced. In an attempt to compensate for the dwindling populations of bees and other pollinators all round the world, scientists have been struggling to come up with an artificial alternative.

That’s exactly what was happening at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Nomi, where Eijiro Miyako and his team were working on developing a drone which could pollinate plants in place of the absent bees. But despite only being a tiny two centimetres in size, the drones were incapable of touching the flowers without destroying them in the process.

Frustrated, Miyako decided to take some time out to play with his young son. It was as they were experimenting with soap bubbles that the solution hit Miyako square in the face – almost literally. The fragile nature of the bubbles made them the perfect conduit to carry the pollen, dissolving on impact with the surface of the flower but without damaging it in any way.

Forever blowing bubbles

Miyako and his colleagues were already armed with intimate knowledge of the plant cell walls and knew that a bubble could prove to be the ideal way to deliver pollen to their flowers. However, they were still unsure as to whether the bubbles would be robust enough to carry the pollen safely inside them. The first task was to use optical microscopy to strike upon the right pollen and bubble solution for safe and easy transport.

“It sounds somewhat like fantasy, but the functional soap bubble allows effective pollination and assures that the quality of fruits is the same as with conventional hand pollination,” explains Miyako. “In comparison with other types of remote pollination, functional soap bubbles have innovative potentiality and unique properties, such as effective and convenient delivery of pollen grains to targeted flowers and high flexibility to avoid damaging them.”

Miyako and his team tested the bubbles in conjunction with an autonomous drone that can be remotely controlled via GPS. They found the drone was capable of delivering the pollen with a 90% accuracy rate, all the while moving at a speed of two metres per second. Although vulnerable to inclement weather such as wind and rain, the soap bubble drone dispersal method is a promising step forward for the field of artificial pollination.

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