Tiny FAIRY bots that weigh 1.2mg could act as pollinators

The robot was inspired by dandelion seeds, and ideally, it may be utilised in the same way

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The FAIRY robot on a finger.— Jianfeng Yang/Tampere University
The FAIRY robot on a finger.— Jianfeng Yang/Tampere University

FAIRY, which stands for Flying Aero-robots based on Light Responsive Materials Assembly, is a brand-new robot that weighs only 1.2 milligrammes and is the first flying robot we've seen made of soft materials that react to light, researchers reported in the journal Advanced Science.

The robot's inventors hope that it will be used to help lessen the loss of pollinators (like bees) that we're now witnessing in the wild. The robot was inspired by dandelion seeds, and ideally, it may be utilised in the same way.

The FAIRY may be raised into the air and the spread of its bristles can be managed with the help of light. The ultra-lightweight robot then flies and might eventually be disseminated across a wide area, just like the seeds it is built on.

"The FAIRY can be powered and controlled by a light source, such as a laser beam or LED," said micro roboticist Hao Zeng from Tampere University in Finland, reported Science Alert.

"It sounds like science fiction, but the proof-of-concept experiments included in our research show that the robot we have developed provides an important step towards realistic applications suitable for artificial pollination."

The FAIRY bot's design is extremely porous and very light, both of which aid in its ability to breathe via the air. Like a dandelion seed, it can also generate its own vortex ring, which improves aerodynamics and guarantees that the machine can travel far distances on its own.

There is some control over the wind because the flying machine's shape may be altered to meet it, almost like a ship's sail. It cannot, however, be directly piloted in the same way as a drone, for instance.

The bristly filament used to construct the robot has individual fibres that are only 14 microns thick. Actuator, a flexible piece, is what connects the bristles.

"Superior to its natural counterparts, this artificial seed is equipped with a soft actuator," says Zeng. "The actuator is made of light-responsive liquid crystalline elastomer, which induces opening or closing actions of the bristles upon visible light excitation."

Zeng and his colleagues envision millions of these artificial "seeds" transporting pollen on the wind, directed by light toward trees that require pollination, after testing them in wind tunnels and under laser lights. Before that can happen, however, there is still a tonne of work to be done.

The researchers are considering methods to make these FAIRY bots biodegradable as well as ways to more precisely control where they land. The project, which began in September 2021, is expected to continue its research through August 2026.

Dandelion seeds have an innovative design, some of which has been copied by scientists, that allows them to travel 10, and occasionally even 100 kilometres in hot, dry, windy circumstances. These FAIRY bots could perform the same functions without a battery or other external power source.

"This would have a huge impact on agriculture globally since the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a serious threat to biodiversity and food production," says Zeng.