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Scientists pollinate flowers with insect-sized drones coated in sticky gel

By Brooks Hays
Scientists pollinate flowers with insect-sized drones coated in sticky gel
An illustration shows a drone depositing pollen in a lily. Photo by Eijiro Miyako/Cell Press

Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Scientists in Japan found a way to pollinate flowers without the help of insects.

Engineers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology picked up pollen from one flower and deposited it in another using insect-sized drones coated with a special ionic gel.

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The gel was originally developed in 2007 as a electrical conductor. It was deemed a failure by its creator Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the AIST Nanomaterial Research Institute, but it may have found a new life as a pollen collecting agent.

Miyako found in the gel in a storage closet while cleaning out his lab.

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"This project is the result of serendipity," said Miyako. "We were surprised that after 8 years, the ionic gel didn't degrade and was still so viscous. Conventional gels are mainly made of water and can't be used for a long time, so we decided to use this material for research."

Miyako and fellow researcher Svetlana Chechetka bought a drone to test the gel with, but soon realized they could just smear the gel on the craft's underside. AIST colleagues Masayoshi Tange and Yue Yu helped the Miyako and Chechetka affix horse hair to the drone.

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The gel-coated hairs created more surface area with which to pick up pollen. A slight electrical charge running through the bristles also helped hold the pollen grains during flight.

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Scientists used their creation to successfully pollinate pink-leaved Japanese lilies, Lilium japonicum. They described their feat in the journal Chem.

"The findings, which will have applications for agriculture and robotics, among others, could lead to the development of artificial pollinators and help counter the problems caused by declining honeybee populations," Miyako said. "We believe that robotic pollinators could be trained to learn pollination paths using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence."

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