With the bee population in distressing decline, Harvard roboticists have been looking into an artificial solution for pollinating plants. That solution: Robobees, tiny winged robots that the team hopes will autonomously fly from flower to flower, spreading the pollen around. But these creepy little beauties may do more than pollinate — and they may be more insect-like than we ever imagined.
The Harvard Microrobotics Lab, founded within the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has been working on developing the Robobees, also known as the Micro Air Vehicles Project, since 2009. The idea is to pull from both the biomechanics and social organization of bees to create robots that can both fly and, to some extent, behave like bees.
One of the challenges is packing all of the necessary power and electronics into a lightweight body. Professor Rob Wood explains that they've taken a design approach inspired in part by children's pop-up books, folding and layering the individual components on top of one another. Fortunately, in 2007, Wood's lab conducted the first successful flight of a life-sized robotic fly, and the microrobotics lab has been continuing that research. To guide the Robobees from flower to flower, the team is also developing sensors that can inform the robot in much the way a bee's antennae and eyes do.
The Robobees won't just share the pollinating function of real bees; the team is also looking to imbue them with colony behaviors. Although they won't have a queen, the Robobees will live in a hive, which functions as a refueling station. Coordination algorithms and communication methods are in the works as well, hopefully giving the Robobees the ability to inform and help one another—sadly, without dancing.
The Microrobotics lab seems a host of possible uses for the robotic insects, including military surveillance, search and rescue missions, exploration of hazardous environments, traffic surveillance, and weather and climate mapping. Unfortunately, though, it seems they won't be taking over all of the bees' regular duties. While these Robobees don't come with stingers yet, they aren't off making honey, either.
Of course, we'll always love this robot bee: