Bee-bots: What’s all the buzz about?

Pollinators around the world are in trouble. Bees pollinate roughly 75% of the food we consume, but in the last decade populations have declined due to threats such as habitat loss and disease caused by the use of pesticides. This has led to Japanese engineers developing drones carrying horsehair coated in non-toxic liquid gel to perform the process of pollination artificially. The question then arises; ‘Should miniature drones fill the gap?’.

What can we do?

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Use Drones

If the decline in bees continues, we risk relying purely on corn, wheat and rice to survive. The effect on the wider food chain could be detrimental to the production of other products such as dairy, meat and clothing. This could lead to a global catastrophe from both economic and social points of view. A decline in the production of crops would negatively impact the agricultural industry and could lead to unemployment in this sector, having a knock-on effect on the global economy. Therefore, the success of artificial drone pollination would not only sustain but could increase current food production levels, satisfying the growing global demand which by 2050 could rise by 98%. As well as continuing to meet the demand, drones do not damage crops unlike alternative methods of artificial pollination such as spray pollination, which have shown limited success.

“We risk relying purely on corn, wheat and rice to survive.”

Using drones would create jobs in the engineering sector and the technological advancements arising from this could lead to breakthroughs in other fields, adding value to the economy. As crops account for $200 billion in global agricultural revenue, a decline in this valuable business would have a significant global economic impact. Japanese engineers are one group of people that would benefit economically from the use of drones, due to the revenue created as well as the recognition for the advancement in technology. Environmentalists would argue that humans are having a negative impact on the population of bees due to the use of pesticides and land clearing, therefore we have a responsibility to remedy this, by taking advantage of our engineering knowledge and expertise to find alternatives to natural processes.

Drones are also likely to survive in harsh environments that are unsuitable for natural pollinators, such as in research labs, which are considered unethical by some people as they deprive the bee of their natural environment. The use of drones could be extended to bio-domes on other planets, where colonisation is being investigated and transporting bees would be impractical.

Don’t Use Drones

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From an opposing economical viewpoint, producing drones to replicate bees would require a substantial investment. A single hive consists of hundreds of thousands of bees, and during early trials, drones only demonstrated a 53% success rate. Even if these drones were cheap, more drones would be required to have the same impact on pollination, increasing the costs further and leading to potential bankruptcy.

The low success rate also suggests we have a lack of understanding of the pollination process itself. Pollination involves finding flowers and assessing if they have already been visited. The key advantage of using bees is due to their vast experience, independent decision making, learning and teamwork that allows them to have a high degree of success when pollinating. Engineering this level of intuition would be incredibly challenging. Some product consumers would also be concerned with how natural the process of pollination is, potentially deterring them from buying some products.

“They could be hacked and used for unintended purposes.”

It can also be argued that every species known to man should share the equal right to existence and must be protected. Bees would face potential extinction if the exercise of pollination was taken away from their control, since a scent from drones may put them off collecting nectar to feed both themselves and their extended colony. This is coupled with the fact the effect on the population of bees following the introduction of these drones is unknown. Beekeepers are dependent upon a healthy population of bees, so a decline in the population caused by the introduction of drones would potentially put them out of business.

As drones incorporate cameras, GPS and artificial intelligence to carry out their tasks, there is the risk that they could be hacked and utilised for unintended purposes. For example, the camera could be used for surveillance, violating people’s privacy. Furthermore, the sheer number of drones could make them dangerous due to possible collisions with people, as well as being considered an eyesore to some.

What should we do?

From an ethical point of view, using drones can be supported by the utilitarian (11) approach, as drone pollination could not only satisfy a greater number of people than ever before by increasing the supply of crops, but also maintain global wellbeing and happiness. Furthermore, from a deontological point of view it can be argued that humans have a duty to ensure their own survival.

The rights approach (12) can be applied to the opposing option of not using drones, which states we have rights that should be respected, and use of camera technology on drones could breach the right to privacy. Risking the extinction of bees by introducing drones contradicts deontology, which suggests we as humans have a duty to protect the population of bees and our environment. The rights approach also supports this, as bees arguably have an equal right to existence as humans.

 

This brings us back to the question, ‘Should miniature drones fill the gap?’. We believe these drones aren’t the solution, as the utilitarian centred option to employ the drones focusses purely on human happiness. Furthermore, it fails to address some of the wider considerations such as the practicalities of implementing drones for the purpose of pollination. Not using drones is more morally sound as the deontological and rights approaches consider the negative impact of drones on both bees and people, unlike the utilitarian approach. They also take factors such as privacy and security into account.

Do you think drones are the future? Has our dependence on technology gone too far?

Group 37: Rmma Miller, Sam Davison, Shnneha Patel, Lia Gyimesi

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54 thoughts on “Bee-bots: What’s all the buzz about?

  1. Certainly, pollination is critical for the procreation of many types of plants, bushes and (fruit) trees that rely heavily upon the wind, bees or other insects or animal to carry out the important task of pollen transfer. Can that work – currently done by the global colony of bees – be replaced by technology and drones in particular? I don’t think so.
    This article identifies technology as a possible alternative to the traditional work of bees and offers a way to offset their perceived decline in numbers.
    If anything this report highlights the underlying and vital need to address the issue of bee-keeping and to have better records about what is and what isn’t sustainable in food production from a bee-colony perspective. We wouldn’t want to be without honey and that should be one of the most motivating aspects of ensuring bee colonies remain healthy, regardless of the other more frightening, longer-term consequences expressed here.
    As for drones and pollination, I would have to agree that this technology is exciting in the way described: that artificial pollination of crops might well ensure higher yields and more finely turned outcomes that have specific targets – for example, producing medical or functional crops/fruits that can be more precisely controlled.
    Drone technology is migrating its way into all aspects of our lives, pollinating crops using this technology should be encouraged if only to open up food-production opportunities that we cannot perceive of today. After all, we can’t afford to fail in our race to feed a growing world population that will reach 9.5 billion by 2050.

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  2. A very interesting article. I strongly believe that the most important issue is saving the bees rather than trying to replace them. On the other hand things don’t always go the way we want them to and if the decline of bees becomes out of our control we do need a backup plan.

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  3. A very good article that discusses both sides of the use of drones for pollination.
    Makes you think whether technological developments may replicate and replace many of the natural processes that occur on a day to day basis and how that will affect the livelihood of humans and animals alike.

    Like

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