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'Drone Bees' Are Comically Inept, Expensive and Dangerous to Real Bees

Douglas Main - Newsweek
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February 13, 2017

Could this pollinating drone replace butterflies and bees? (Science Magazine)

Bees are in decline in many areas. That’s a problem for agriculture because bees are vital to the environment and are primarily responsible for pollinating many plants - $15 billion worth of crops in the United States alone, including berries, apples and almonds.

Some researchers have come up with the idea of creating robotic bee-like drones to take over the job of pollination.

The only problem: All of these drones are so far wildly expensive, ineffective and would be dangerous to real bees. Moreover, it’s a mistake to think that technology can solve problems created by extinction and biodiversity loss.

It was thus concerning to see the latest “drone bee” study get so much wide-eyed press. Researchers from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have created a 1.6-inch by 1.6-inch drone with four rotor blades that they say is the first to ever pollinate a flower. Many outlets suggest the drones could help bees, or take the pressure off their pollinating duties.

It’s hard to see how these drones would be helpful, though, considering that if deployed in the same place as bees the machine’s blades and loud noise would likely kill and scare away real bees.

These drones cost about $100 each, and so far are controlled manually. As explained in The Conversation, in one of the few skeptical takes on the research:

Writing in a paper in the journal Chem, the team demonstrated their drone on an open bamboo lily (Lilium japonicum) flower. With a bit of practice, the device could pick up 41% of the pollen available within three landings and successfully pollinated the flower in 53 out of 100 attempts. It used a patch of hairs augmented with a non-toxic ionic liquid gel that used static electricity and stickiness to be able to “lift and stick” the pollen. Although the drone was manually operated in this study, the team stated that by adding artificial intelligence and GPS, it could learn to forage for and pollinate plants on its own.

That’s not a great success rate, and lilies are among the easiest plants to pollinate, with large, obvious sex organs. The researchers suggest the drones could be optimized with artificial intelligence and autonomous operation, but when you add up all the costs of materials, and start thinking about how they could be powered and controlled, it quickly becomes obvious how impractical an idea it is.

Read the rest at Newsweek

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