The decline of pollinators, especially bees, has serious consequences for agriculture and human health. Scientists estimate that 4.7% of the world’s total production of fruits, 3.2% of vegetables and 4.7% of nuts is now lost due to insufficient pollination. But there is hope. Researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland have developed a robot that can act as an artificial pollinator.
Inspired by dandelion seeds, the team took advantage of technological advances in sensory-responsive polymers used in small, wirelessly controlled soft-bodied robots that can walk, swim, jump or even hover. The result was a polymer assembly robot that uses wind and light to fly – a world first, according to the researchers.
The robot resembles a dandelion seed and has several biomimetic properties. Its porous structure and light weight (1.2mg) allow it to float in the air guided by the wind. Notably, the robot can also manually adjust to the wind direction and force by changing its shape. And thanks to a stable, separated vortex ring generation, it is suitable for wind-assisted travel over long distances.
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“[It] can be powered and controlled by a light source, such as a laser beam or LED,” says Hao Zeng, the leader of the research group, said. Essentially, light can be used to control the takeoff, landing, and shape of the structure.
According to Zeng, the proof-of-concept experiments show significant potential for “realistic applications” suitable for agricultural pollination. In the future, these artificial dandelion seeds — dispersed freely by natural winds and directed by light — could transport pollen to designated areas that require plant pollination.
With this goal in mind, the team plans to improve the material sensitivity that will allow the robot to operate in sunlight, and is looking to scale up the structure so that it can be equipped with microelectronic devices, including GPS, sensors and biochemical compounds . .
Nevertheless, the technology requires further research and collaboration with materials scientists and microrobotics experts to address two key challenges: the precise control of the landing site and reusing the device to make it biodegradable.
You can read the full study here.