However, the drones are not quite ready for mass pollination - they're still tricky to control and they've only been tested on one kind of flower.
Scientists in Japan have now designed a small drone - that actually looks nothing like a bee - capable of picking up pollen from a lily and depositing it at another lily flower by using a particularly sticky gel, they report in a paper published in the journal Chem. Flowers looking to get the pollen from their male parts into another bloom's female parts need an envoy to carry it from one to the other. With a combination of the hair and gel, the team flew the drones from flower to flower, in this case Japanese lilies, and found that they were effective artificial pollinators. The hair is covered in a chemical compound that picks up pollen as it flies by flowers, transferring it from the stamen to the pistils.
Numbers of pollinating insects have been decreasing over time, with one type of North American bumble bee listed as an endangered species previous year.
"The findings, which will have applications for agriculture and robotics, among others, could lead to the development of artificial pollinators and help counter the problems caused by declining honeybee populations", says Miyako. "The need to develop an innovative pollination tool that does not require time and effort to achieve pollination with a high success rate is urgent", the authors write. But they aren't created to replace bees.
Scientists have thought about using drones, but scientists haven't figured out how to make free-flying robot insects that can rely on their own power source without being attached to a wire. The horse hair is coated in a type of ionic liquid sticky gel, accidentally discovered and then forgotten about for almost a decade by the study's lead author Eijiro Miyako.
The chemist noticed that when dropped, the gel absorbed an impressive amount of dust from the floor.
The research was initiated in 2007 when it was observed that sticky ionic gels can be used as a pollen collecting medium.
The ants that had the goo on them were more likely to have pollen stick to them than ones that didn't.
The researchers applied the gel to tiny drones about one-and-a-half-inches long, outfitted with horsehairs arranged like a bee's body hair. "But importantly, bees and drones should be used together".
However, the drones obviously can't produce honey, and since humans would be needed to maneuver them, it proves to be an impractical solution - for now. However, it's possible that the drones could one day learn to fly on their own, using Global Positioning System and artificial intelligence, the scientists say.
There's a lot of work to be done before that's a reality, however.