Could this pollinating drone replace butterflies and bees?

Pollinators around the world are in trouble: A recent report puts 40% of the smallest ones—like butterflies and bees—at risk of extinction. Could miniature drones fill the gap? To find out, researchers ordered a small drone online and souped it up with a strip of fuzz made from a horsehair paintbrush covered in a sticky gel. The device is about the size of a hummingbird, and has four spinning blades to keep it soaring. With enough practice, the scientists were able to maneuver the remote-controlled bot so that only the bristles, and not the bulky body or blades, brushed gently against a flower’s stamen to collect pollen—in this case, a wild lily (Lilium japonicum), they report today in Chem. To ensure the hairs collect pollen efficiently, the researchers covered them with ionic liquid gel (ILG), a sticky substance with a long-lasting “lift-and-stick-again” adhesive quality—perfect for taking pollen from one flower to the next. What’s more, the ILG mixture has another quality: When light hits it, it blends in with the color of its surroundings, potentially camouflaging the bot from would-be predators. But don’t expect fields filled with buzzing bots just yet. Because the pollinator bot is remote controlled, it would need a human pilot to guide it from plant to plant, impractical for guiding large swarms. However, it’s possible that the drones could one day learn to fly on their own, using GPS and artificial intelligence, the scientists say. The one thing they still won’t be able to do? Make honey. But with their pollination workload lightened, maybe we could leave that one to the bees.