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Why All the Buzz About Robotic Bees?
Robotic pollination is at least 20 years into the future, but micro-drones are being developed and may have many practical uses.
By Judith Pfeffer - Filed May 13, 2014

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There’s been quite a bit of buzz recently about “robot bees” and a fictional dystopian future in which they replace – and possibly even kill off – nature’s own version.

The apparent intent of the video from Greenpeace - a clever parody of slick “corporate responsibility” videos complete with cute smiling kids - is to heighten awareness of Colony Collapse Disorder, overuse of pesticides and other factors that hurt bees, which pollinate the majority of food crops.

It is a tragedy in the making, especially in Europe, though hardly a new or unrecognized one.

In fact, it has plagued much of the planet for the better part of the past decade and is a genuine threat to at least a third of commercial agriculture.

Here’s what the hype doesn’t tell you: Real researchers have been working for years on creating tiny flying machines or “micro-drones” that are engineered to emulate, insofar as this is possible, the airborne activity of actual insects.

Top-flight intellects such as Robert Wood of Harvard University and his counterparts at Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington have been working on making “robo-bees” or micro-drones of various sorts for the past several years.

Wood is the founder of the Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University and is leading the National Science Foundation-sponsored Expeditions in Computing RoboBees project that has the goal of developing a colony of autonomous robotic bees. 

Wood and two of his Harvard colleagues in the Scientific American issue of March 1, 2013, state: “We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.”

Wood's RoboBees are the size of a penny and do look rather like bugs, although somewhat more like a fly than a bee.

According to Adam Piore, writing  in January’s Popular Science, practical applications in future for such RoboBees include military, law-enforcement, data collection, search-and-rescue, and, maybe, one day, pollination.

Wood is not so sure about that last one. Contacted Thursday, he said, “Even if robots were able to be used for pollination (a prospect that is some two decades away), it would only be as a stop-gap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators.”

He continued, “There are, of course, multiple applications for a collection of small coordinated robots. Most are similar to applications for other autonomous robots such as search and rescue and hazardous environment exploration. One specific example from the project is our pop-up fabrication technique that is now being used in the design of new medical devices for minimally-invasive surgery.”

Other Ph.Ds, including those at Physical Science Inc. not too far away from Harvard, in Andover, Mass., are aggressively seeking commercial applications for somewhat similar products.

The InstantEye small unmanned aerial system is much larger than Harvard's RoboBee and looks more like a typical hobbyist's model airplane. However, PSI Vice President Thomas Vaneck told Robotics Trends that the InstantEye's origins go back to company studies on flies and moths and their ability to be simultaneously agile and robust.

"One of our new focus areas is developing payloads for InstantEye that allow it to be tailored for particular applications. For example, it can carry a very small thermal camera to look for heat sources such as people or animals or fires," he said Thursday.

"We expect that in the very near future it will be used to find lost children, conduct animal census and identify a small fire in a forest before it becomes an inferno. We have carried high resolution cameras to assess the health of banana trees in Hawaii and to look for invasive plants in wetland areas. We are developing sensor payloads that can detect methane leaks from landfills, pollutants emitted from manufacturing plants, noise generated by wind turbines and hazardous chemicals released into the environment."

Vaneck concluded, "While today InstantEye does not look very insect-like, over time, its design will evolve. It will not be a replacement for natural organisms but rather a tool to help preserve them."

Perhaps even the Greenpeace activists would be pleased to hear that.

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