Global declines in pollinator populations are a cause for concern. As the basis of fertilisation and an important foundation of the ecosystem, scientists have found incredible solutions to save their lives. In Europe, bus stops have become pit stops for pollinators. In Japan, tiny water shrines serve as a resting place for bees. But what if pollinator populations decline too much? A group of scientists from the University of Tampere in Finland has a possible solution.
The university's Light Robots group builds robots that respond to light and are lightweight at the same time. He focused on stimulus-responsive polymers. Hao Zeng, team leader and academy researcher, explains: "The development of stimulus-responsive polymers has opened many material-related possibilities for a new generation of small soft-bodied robots with wireless control." jump, but so far no one has successfully used them to make robots fly.
Zeng and Jianfeng Yang have created a new design inspired by dandelion based on photosensitive materials for their project called FAIRY or Flying Air Robots. This polymer assembly robot can fly in the wind and is controlled by light. "This artificial seed is superior to its natural counterparts and equipped with a soft drive," explains Zeng. "The actuator consists of a light-sensitive liquid crystal elastomer that causes the bristles to open or close when excited by visible light." In other words, light can be used to change the shape of a small robot.
Zeng and Yang created these tiny fairies to mimic one of nature's finest pollinators, the dandelions. The tiny robots are highly porous and incredibly light, allowing them to float effortlessly in the air. Dandelion seeds create separate vortex rings that help the seeds balance and travel long distances.
To do their due diligence, the team created a way for the robots to create their own custom vortex rings. "The fairy can be powered and controlled by a light source such as a laser beam or an LED," says Zeng. As the light hits the robot, it changes shape, creating vortices and catching the wind to take off with little effort. The light beam can also control the takeoff and landing of the robot. And because the polymer reacts to light, it stays still on dark and overcast days, waiting for optimal light conditions to set off.
Researchers will then target design improvements and scaling to deliver incredible benefits. They will work on the sensitivity of the polymer so that the micro-robots can be controlled in daylight. You'll also find ways to carry around tiny electronic devices like GPS and sensors, as well as chemical compounds. "It sounds like science fiction," Zeng writes, "but the proof-of-concept experiments of our study show that the robot we developed represents an important step towards realistic applications suitable for artificial pollination."
The FAIRY project has been running for a little over a year and will end in August 2026. There are many challenges to overcome and questions to answer, but Zeng and his team are confident that the possibilities are endless.
"This will have a huge impact on agriculture worldwide, as the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a major threat to biodiversity and food production."