Scientists say that endangered bees are critical to terrestrial plant life, which has a direct impact on animals as well as the food we eat.
But what if they weren’t? What if, instead, we constructed tiny, airborne robots that could do the work of bees via bubble guns?
It may sound like the makings of a third sequel to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” but the whimsical proposition was actually introduced by Japanese researchers at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Nomi. A study on the idea’s potential was published Wednesday in the journal iScience.
Eijiro Miyako has been developing robot pollinators for years, but has so far been unsuccessful as the tiny drones were more reckless — and known to destroy flowers during the process. “It was too sad,” he told Agence France-Presse.
He said the idea to envelop his bots into bubbles came while playing at a park with his 3-year-old son, who was unfazed by the soap bubbles that bumped and burst onto his face.
That’s when Miyako and co-author Xi Yang began toying with bubbles in the lab, by first confirming that bubbles had the structure to carry pollen. Then, they used five different soapy solutions found in nearby shops and determined that lauramidopropyl betaine, used in cosmetics to increase foam, performed the best. They also added calcium to the mixture, which promotes plant germination, and calibrated the bubble’s pH to be sure it would not disrupt plants’ chemical balance.
With their optimized mixture, the two scientists filled their pollinated soap solution into a bubble gun and released the bubbles into a pear orchard. At a rate of around 2,000 pollen grains per bubble, Miyako and Yang found that 95% of the flowers they’d intended to hit yielded fruit.
“It sounds somewhat like fantasy, but the … soap bubble allows effective pollination and assures that the quality of fruits is the same as with conventional hand pollination,” said Miyako in a statement to Cell Press.
He says that this method mimics natural pollination better than doing so by hand, which is known to be a more laborious task.
They took their idea a step further by fashioning the bubble launchers onto drones that follow a programmed route. At that point, however, blooming season had ended, so they ran a test on faux lilies to determine the appropriate height and velocity for best coverage. At a distance of two meters above and speed of two meters per second, they managed to cover 90% of the targeted area.
Miyako is “in talks” with at least one company that is interested in the technique, according to AFP, although more work needs to be done to improve its precision.
The authors wrote in their report that they hope their experiment will garner more interest in the field of artificial pollination, to mitigate “the decline in pollinator insects, the heavy labor involved in artificial pollination, and the soaring costs of pollen grains.”