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Bubble-blowing drone could help pollinate flowers when no bees are around

The world has a bee problem, and it’s pretty darn scary. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. The declining bee population is terrifying because of the crucial role that bees play in sustaining our ecosystem by pollinating flowers. No bees could mean the end of all the plants they pollinate, which would be devastating for the animals that feed on those plants, the animals which feed on those plant-eating animals, and so on up the food chain.

While many scientists are working hard to solve the question of why bee populations are diminishing, others are working hard to find alternate ways of pollinating plants should they need to be called into service. Previously we’ve covered efforts such as robot bees, called B-Droids, which could perform the job of their buzzy biological counterparts. But researchers at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have another idea — and it involves the seemingly whimsical concept of a drone with a bubble-blowing attachment of the sort you imagine could go over well at a kid’s birthday party.

bubble drone

The twist is that the bubbles could carry pollen grains which could harmlessly burst onto flowers, pollinating them in the process. Researchers working on the project have demonstrated the efficacy of the approach, showing that they can achieve a 90% success rate in a study involving a GPS-controlled drone spewing soap bubbles traveling at two meters per second at a height of a couple of meters off the ground. Each bubble carries around 2,000 individual grains of pollen, and the bubble-making device can spit out a near-constant stream of them.

It’s still early days for the research. It exists as a promising proof-of-concept, albeit a slightly fanciful one. But there’s reason to believe it could work. At least, more realistically than some tech-heavy approaches to the pollination problem. The idea of crop-dusting fields with pesticides has been used for years. Unlike the more high-tech robot bee approaches, which involve recognizing individual flowers and then targeting them, this approach simply involves releasing a payload over a particular area. The bubbles would also disappear after delivering their payload, without any trace left behind, and with no damage to the flowers. Unusual? You bet. But it might just work.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Cell.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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