Robobees: Robotic Bees May Save America's Food Supplies
Could robotic bees save our crops? Harvard researchers are attempting to build robotic insects the size of pennies in order to solve the problem of a dwindling population of pollinators.
Robobees, as they're endearingly called, are a response to the call from President Obama to combat the decrease in honey bee population in the United States. "Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States," the presidential memorandum states. "Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment." But in spite of the establishment of a Pollinator Health Task Force, the population of pollinators has continued to steadily decline.
Now, Harvard's Microrobotics Laboratory is attempting to build tiny robots that fly and distribute pollen among flowers just like a real honeybee. They will draw inspiration from the biology of real-life bees in order to create a more efficient robot. "Small insects and animals have long been ideal models for roboticists and computer scientists. Bees, for example, possess unmatched elegance in flight, zipping from flower to flower with ease and hovering stably with heavy payloads." However, this is easier said than done. In order to mimic the unrivaled efficiency of bees' flight, the researchers will need extremely high-powered energy sources. Also, in order to ape their distinctive colony behavior, complex coordination algorithms will need to be utilized in order to allow them to communicate with each other on both local and global scales. And, most difficult of all, the researchers will need to build very complex sensors that mimic the bees' eyes and antennae in order to allow the bees to detect flowers and monitor their flightpath.
[Credit: Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory]
A solution to Colony Collapse Disorder seems to be at the forefront of this research, but according to the Robobees website, these robotic insects can be used for a myriad of applications besides pollination, such as "search and rescue (e.g., in the aftermath of a natural disaster), hazardous environment exploration, military surveillance, high resolution weather and climate mapping, and traffic monitoring." However, there are ethical and social concerns that accompany the idea of widespread use; for example, if they were used for military surveillance, then their use would bring up the same questions of mechanized warfare and unaccountability as drones.