Fans of the dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror are already familiar with the potential perils of unleashing tiny, insect-sized drones into the wild. In the third-season episode “Hated in the Nation,” swarms of drone bugs serve as surveillance tools (and worse) for government agencies and shadowy hacker networks alike. Scientists apparently don’t watch sci-fi anymore, because insect drone after insect drone is being developed despite the warnings of forward-thinking writers. Just earlier this year, MIT-connected Draper Industries of Massachusetts developed a cyborg dragonfly platform in which a backpack of tiny cameras and other surveillance equipment is mounted directly to dragonflies which are controlled remotely via neural implants. Creepy.
While the more pessimistic thinkers among us will look at these insect drones with dismay at the dystopian possibilities offered by tiny flying robots, there are potential positive applications of these new technologies. Tiny drones could aid in search and rescue operations in ways conventional robots cannot, and would be invaluable for atmospheric and weather research. Now, a team of Japanese scientists believes their tiny winged drones could solve one of the planet’s most pressing concerns: honeybee colony collapse.
According to the team’s recent publication in Cell, many attempts have been made to create robotic pollinators but have failed due to the thermal and electrical conductivity constraints of such a tiny platform. Their drones represent a breakthrough in insect-sized drones due to their unique use of ionic liquid gels (ILGs), a class of gels which conduct heat and electricity and are just sticky enough to collect pollen.
The researchers claim that these gels have the potential to remove many of the barriers currently facing the development of “robotic pollinators:”
[ILGs] should lead to the development of robotic pollinators and help counter the problems caused by the declining honeybee populations. We believe that robotic pollinators will be able to move smartly and learn the optimal pollination path by using GPS and artificial intelligence.
Yep, I can see it now. Swarms of AI bees, pleasantly roaming the countryside, pollinating flowers and totally not "accidentally" stripping the flesh off of any unlucky human passerby. Totally not going to happen. Well, not anytime soon anyway. The researchers are quick to note that this platform likely needs years of more testing before it is capable of any applications in the field. Good thing, too, because my electrified anti-drone bug net technology needs some work before it’s fully operational.