Researchers create tiny angel-like robots which can pollinate and can replace their natural counterparts

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photo credit: Jianfeng Yang

Researchers in Finland have developed tiny, fairy-like robots that can fly, which could help pollinate important crops around the world.

Created at the University of Tampere, these tiny robots are made of stimuli-responsive polymers, which have been used in the past as building materials in soft-bodied, remotely controlled robots.

Previous research has shown that these polymers enable robots to walk, swim or jump. This is the first time the researchers have found a way for their stimulus-responsive robots to fly.

These new “Tinkerbell” robots are so porous and small (weighing just 1.2 milligrams) that they can travel floating through the air. They are also light-responsive, meaning they can be controlled using light input.

In other words, an aimed laser could cause the robot to change shape, which would cause it to change direction or velocity as it traveled through the air.

“Superior to its natural counterparts, this artificial seed is equipped with a soft actuator,” Hao Zeng, who leads the Light Robots group, said in a statement. “The actuator is composed of a light-responsive liquid crystalline elastomer, which actuates the opening or closing of the bristles upon visible light stimulation.”

This new discovery could mean that millions of artificial dandelion seeds carrying pollen will one day be distributed around the world. Using light, these robotic pollinators can be steered toward any trees and plants that need to be pollinated.

Developing such artificial pollinators could prove vital if valuable pollinators such as honeybees continue to die out around the world.

One study found that 25% fewer species of pollinators were recorded between 2006 and 2015 than the number before 1990. And between 2015 and 2016, 44% of managed beehives in the US were hit by the disease.

This loss of pollinators is largely due to human activities. Factors such as habitat loss, the use of harmful pesticides in agriculture and gardens, warmer temperatures and disease are all playing a role.

The change is already having an impact on the global food supply. Of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, 70 are heavily dependent on pollinators. According to one study, a decline in pollinator populations has resulted in a 3-5% reduction in the ability to produce fruits, vegetables and nuts.

While reducing pesticide use and increasing biodiversity help restore natural pollinators, robots developed by Tampere University could take over bees’ job of pollinating the world’s crops.

Having produced proof-of-concept experiments, the team is now moving on to making their pollinators more precise.

via BusinessNews