Robot Bees: possible buzz of the future?

Kalie Swails

Imagine for a moment a swarm of bees — a great cloud of insects buzzing about a hive, lilting through the sky or meandering across a field, fastidiously floating between plants and petals.

Notice then that their grey, carbon-fiber bodies are held aloft by titanium wings. Their buzz is not the hum of natural wing beats, but that of tiny, autonomous machines.

It sounds the plot of a science fiction movie, but in Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory, researchers are one step closer to turning what resembles an H. G. Wells fantasy into reality.

The Micro Air Vehicles Project, known more simply as the RoboBees project, is described as a “convergence of body, brain and colony.” Researchers at Harvard have already developed the first of these RoboBees — a prototype creature dubbed the “Mobee,” short for Monolithic Bee — and anticipate demonstrating independent, flying micro-air-vehicles modeled on insects within the next two and a half years.

The task won’t be an easy one, according to Rob Wood, the project’s principal investigator, but it is within reach.

“The challenges that you get when you scale these things down mean that you have to reinvent everything, everything has to come from scratch, every one of the technologies,” Wood said in an interview with NPR. “There is nothing off the shelf.”

Aside from a pair of titanium wings, Mobee doesn’t look much like a bee, but in the world of robotic insects, function trumps aesthetics.

RoboBee visionaries say robotic insects could be used for a variety of purposes, such as military surveillance, hazardous environment exploration and climate mapping. According to Harvard, though, the over arching aspiration of the Robobee project is to create robotic pollinator technology.

Harvard researchers say they recognize such a plan is highly ambitious and are collaborating across a wide range of scientific and engineering disciplines to realize their goals. Some entomologists, however, are skeptical of the RoboBee project and concerned about what creating robotic insects could mean for real bees.

“I think that [creating robotic pollinators] is a highly optimistic speculation on the part of the engineers,” said Paul Johnson, professor of entomology at South Dakota State University. “If somebody really wants to try and develop a robotic bee that can pollinate plants as effectively as real bees, that’s going to take a long time to develop.”

As bee populations drop worldwide, however, one might begin to see a place for RoboBees in the not-so-distant future.

Instances of honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony abruptly disappear, are increasing in North America, particularly in states such as North Dakota, California and South Dakota, which lead the production of honey in the United States, respectively. Native bee populations, which provide about 75 percent of pollination services worldwide, are also vanishing.

Unlike honeybees, native bees do not live in hives and are not susceptible to CCD. Instead, native bees live in solitary burrows in the ground in neighborhood-like communities. Their populations are being pushed out by the impact of the human footprint, particularly at the hand of climate change, urban development and agricultural practice.

While some see supplementing or even substituting waning bee populations with robotic replacements as a viable option, David Drons, a graduate student studying entomology at SDSU, feels otherwise.

“If we’re using little RoboBees to pollinate crops and native bees have been pushed out, there will be so few flowers. Then you’re not going to see all the animals that go with them — all these things eat in the forests or eat insects that eat flowers,” said Drons, who is taking the first inventory of native bee species in the Black Hills. “It would just be a downward spiral.”

Drons said he feels letting RoboBees do the job of native bees would circumvent the real issue of human impact and he emphasized his disheartening vision of a world in which RoboBees replace disappearing native species.

“If that were the case, the future will be as grey as the robot bees themselves,” he said.

The technology may be cool, but for many, the RoboBee project raises more questions than answers. Will RoboBees be an invaluable technological advance, or are they a shortsighted solution to a bigger problem?

Either way, researchers have made the first steps toward a future that includes robotic insects, although there are still many hurdles left to jump. Until then, only time will tell if RoboBees will act as a saving grace or simply something to swat at.