While playing soap bubbles with his son, the Japanese researcher Eijiro Miyako came up with the idea of using them as a solution to the problem of pollination due to the shortage of bees. Plants and flowers now can be pollinated with robots.
Bees are responsible for pollinating most of the world’s crops. Pesticides, the loss of their habitat and climate change are causing their populations to decrease, thus causing crops and food supplies to be jeopardized. As a solution, some farmers pollinate their flowers manually but it is too expensive a job.
The Japanese chemist Eijiro Miyako has been working for years on a solution that supplants the pollinating function of bees. In 2017 he adapted a toy drone to pollinate flowers. He placed gel-coated horse hair on the underside. When the drone passed over the flowers, the pollen would adhere to the gel and could deposit it on other flowers. This first idea did not have good results for Miyako, since the flowers ended up being very damaged by the drone’s propellers.
But this year, the Japanese scientist has managed to perfect this technique while playing with his son to make soap bubbles. Miyako bought his son a soap bubble gun to play in the park. As he watched the bubbles gently explode against his son’s forehead, an idea occurred to him. Bubbles could be the solution to your first drone problem. For a more delicate approach, the drone could launch pollen-laden soap bubbles that delicately settle on the flowers.
Together with his colleague Xi Yang, he set to work designing the new drone. They first selected the substance from which the bubbles would be made, choosing a surfactant (soapy substance) that had the least possible effect on germination.
Then they tested the technique with a soap bubble gun and successfully pollinated flowers of the Asian plant known as the pear tree in the sands, making it bear fruit. They later used the drone to pollinate fake lily flowers. After checking different speeds and heights of the drone, it was possible to pollinate 90% of the flowers.
One of the tools that farmers use to manually pollinate their flowers is feather brushes. The advantages of this new bubble pollination is that much less pollen is needed to achieve the same effect. This new mechanism, therefore, would be an aid to workers, since they would have to collect much less pollen. While 1,800 milligrams of pollen is needed for each flower to pollinate the flowers with the brushes, with the bubbles it would only take 0.06 milligrams.
Henry Williams, a robotist at the University of Auckland, also managed in 2018 to build a golf cart-like pollinator robot . In this case it was tested in a kiwi orchard and equipped with a liquid sprayer. The main objective was to reduce the amount of pollen used and this was achieved, since the sprayer aims more accurately at the flowers. Williams claims that bubbles make it possible to use even less pollen than with his kiwi pollinator robot.
For his part, Simon Potts, an agroecologist at the University of Reading, is skeptical of the use of pollinating robots. He fears that efforts will be directed towards the construction of alternative techniques to bees instead of methods that help conserve this insect. Think that the problem can be solved in a more sustainable and effective way.