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Pollination Automation: How Drones Might Prevent the Sting of Colony Collapse Disorder

Bee stings may hurt, but a world without bees would hurt more. The global bee population is declining at an alarming rate. Climate change, agricultural demand, and worsening plant diversity have caused colony collapse across Europe and North America that has decimated the bee populations by 25 and 60 percent, respectively. And a future without bees – more likely with each passing year – looks bleak indeed. Humans will face problems worse than just honey shortages; over 35 percent of global food crops and 80 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinating insects such as bees. If something doesn’t change soon, entire ecosystems could collapse.

But researchers across the globe are buzzing about a potential solution. Scientists led by Eijiro Miyako at the Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan have developed a promising prototype of a robotic bee. It turns out that bees’ important role in the environment can be done by a little drone with some sticky gel and a toupee on top. The technology is still coming down the pipeline, but after some preliminary field testing with lilies and tulips, Miyako’s team found that the drones could effectively pollinate flowers. While drone bees might sound more like a Black Mirror-inspired nightmare than a solution to colony collapse disorder, they offer a unique opportunity to help sustain the environment, increase food quality, and even defend the existing bee population. More importantly, drone bees demonstrate the critical role scientists and governments can play in sustaining ecosystems amidst a changing climate.

Bee drones attempt to mimic everything about a real bee’s pollination patterns – sans the stinger. Real bees pollinate using little hairs on their bodies that pick up and deposit pollen as they fly from flower to flower. This is a delicate balance; bees’ hairs are sticky enough to carry pollen through the air and loose enough to let pollen transfer upon landing. Scientists had struggled to replicate the natural qualities of bee hair until Miyako synthesized a special gel that could do the job. While right now the drones are just quadcopters with fake hair, pollinators may soon be made environmentally friendly using biodegradable materials. Furthermore, researchers are developing technology so that drone bees will be able to recognize which flowers have already been adequately pollinated. Using improved visual sensors and existing machine learning technology, drone bees promise to pollinate ecosystems with little chance for unexpected harm. The development of drones could save millions of bees from pollinating areas with harmful chemicals without forcing farmers to endanger their crop yields.

The next step is to build a completely self-sufficient drone bee. Scientists have begun analyzing the sight and flight of actual bees to incorporate into the drones. Ashutosh Natraj of Oxford University studies the way bees see and navigate around an environment with moving obstacles, a concept called optic flow. The Green Brain Project, based out of the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex, is devoted to the idea of building a machine with the full mental capabilities of a bee. And researchers such as Noah Cowan (no relation to the author) at Johns Hopkins University have built careers designing drones to mimic insects’ body movements. If scientists can put the pieces together, the beginnings of an autonomous fleet of pollinators are just over the horizon.

Of course, a fleet of drone bees won’t come cheap. Harmonizing these technologies in one hairy drone would require an impressive amount of engineering and collaboration. Though scientists and governments don’t know exactly how much building the bees would cost, one Newsweek article calls the idea “wildly expensive.” But the costs could be well worth it: Crops dependent on bee pollination contribute between $200 to 600 billion to the global market. The Obama Administration estimated that honey bees alone generate $15 billion in annual economic activity in the US. While success is not guaranteed, supporting drone-bee research could save billions in coming decades.

Some political analysts have suggested that drone bees are a band-aid to the real problems driving colony collapse: climate change, lack of crop diversity, and overuse of pesticides. But colony collapse isn’t going to be the meaningful tipping point that causes politicians to address climate change. Nor will it convince farmers to broaden crop diversity or limit pesticide at the cost of their profits. The almond trees of California, for instance, are typically sprayed with iprodione, a fungicide harmful to bees, but necessary for a reasonable harvest. In cases like these, there is no way for farmers to protect bee populations without threatening their livelihoods. Drone bees are not a panacea. However, so long as politicians and farmers continue to ignore on the larger issues, drone bees can help address the ecological and commercial harms of colony collapse.

Despite the impending Bee Movie/Terminator hybrid future, the benefits of drone-bees are clear. Bees are ripe for automation. Their brains and bodies are simple enough for a small computer, special glue, and a bit of clever engineering to recreate them. And unless governments are willing to step up and address the issues driving collapse, drones are the next best thing to real bees. That doesn’t mean abandoning efforts to stop colony collapse. In the near future, drones should supplement real bees, particularly in areas where pesticides and fungicides decimate current bee populations. Still, governments need to act quickly to invest in new technology and get these drones flying.