Pollen-bearing soap bubbles may provide an effective and convenient form of artificial pollination
You have heard no doubt that bees are dying off, and that you should be worried about it. For the same reason, people are worried about cuddly polar bears, but not as many people are concerned about bees compared to the bears. Bees are integral to food production and hence their extinction is more threatening. Greenpeace reports that from 1947 to 2008, US National Agricultural Statistics showed a 60 percent decrease in the number of honeybee hives. Around one-third of your food can be attributed to the pollination of honey bees, so that’s a big deal. To aid in replacing these bees, Researchers have built a bubble-making drone capable of artificial pollination of flowers.
This research was carried out at the Japan Advanced Science and Technology Institute (JAIST) with the simple goal of providing a practical means of artificial pollination. Since years a number of scholars around the world have been working on this subject and some of them have experienced modest results. Yet it has not been realistic for robotic pollinators. They have to make direct contact with flowers, which is highly inefficient and sometimes leads to flower damage. Artificial pollination approach solves all problems, and in retrospect seems almost obvious: just fire pollen-laden bubbles at the flowers.
If you were at a birthday party for a kid then you already know how easy it is to make soap bubbles. The researchers developed special pollen carrying solutions in those bubbles, which was specially designed for effective pollination. They then placed the solution in a bubble system attached to a regular hex copter drone’s bottom. The drone can fly over flowers at two meters of speed per second and two meters of height, and still achieve a 90 percent pollination success rate. In no way will the bubbles hit flowers, but it is hardly important when you spray a field with thousands of bubbles per second.
In a press release for a paper published in the iScience newspaper 17-JUN-2020, JAIST researcher Eijiro Miyako explains how his team operated on a small pollinating drone which had the unfortunate side effect of constantly killing the flowers with which it came into touch. Frustrated, Miyako wanted to consider a suitable method for artificial pollination, and when blowing bubbles with his son at a playground, Miyako realized that if those bubbles could hold pollen grains, they would make a perfect distribution system: You can create and transport them very efficiently, generate them easily and after delivering their payload they literally disappear. Of course, they are not targetable, but it’s not like they need to chase anything, and there’s absolutely no reason not to compensate with high volume for low precision.
One advantage of using bubbles instead of feather brushes is that the bubbles require significantly less pollen. The researchers found that a feather brush applies about 1800 milligrams of pollen to each flower, whereas the bubbles require only 0.06 milligrams. That means farmers will need to harvest even less pollen before they manually pollinate their flowers if they apply it to a soap solution.
Henry Williams, a roboticist at the University of Auckland, who was not involved in the work says those savings could be significant. Considering the economy, he helped develop a pollinating robot of the size of a golf cart. Using a movable ram, it will move through a kiwi orchard that distinguishes individual kiwi flowers and pollinates them with a liquid sprayer. “Pollen was a considerable expense during the pollination season, and the primary impetus for the project was reducing pollen consumption,” he says. It used less pollen than handheld sprayers or air blowers because the robot targeted the spray precisely onto flowers. Bubbles may have the potential for incremental savings, he notes.
Miyako also works with robots, albeit a lot simpler. His team attached a bubble sprayer to an aerial drone and programmed the drone to fly a path around a line of fake lily flowers. They found that the drone could hit 90 percent of the flowers with bubbles after trying different speeds and heights.
The concern was so many bubbles exceeded their targets, and pollen lost. Miyako suggested two improvements: Better targeting by having a drone that could identify flowers might improve outcomes and formulating an environmentally friendly soap bubble solution that can biodegrade more rapidly.
However, Yu Gu, a roboticist at the University of West Virginia, is skeptical about using drones to deliver bubbles. He points out that the wind from the rotors makes it difficult to locate the bubbles with accuracy. They might be delivered more efficiently from a ground-based robot, such as a wheeled unit with a manipulator’s arm. Gu and colleagues have only this sort of robot, initially designed to gather samples on missions in space. And they’ve tested it in a greenhouse, pollinating raspberries. It uses a fine brush to collect and distribute pollen, which saves the step of collecting a supply of pollen.
Simon Potts, an agro-ecologist at Reading University, worries that such efforts will distract from the preservation of bees, which in many places are declining. The solution to bubbles raises the possibility of chemical interaction with pollination and polluting water, he says. “This is yet another piece of smart engineering that is being shoehorned to solve a problem that can be solved much more efficiently and sustainably.”
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