RoboBees: If bee populations continue to decline, the dystopian future could one day become a reality.

RoboBees: If bee populations continue to decline, the dystopian future could one day become a reality: –

Honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat, have been dying at unprecedented rates because of a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The situation is so dire that in late June the White House gave a new task force just 180 days to devise a coping strategy to protect bees and other pollinators. The crisis is generally attributed to a mixture of disease, parasites, and pesticides.

Other scientists are pursuing a different tack: replacing bees. While there’s no perfect solution, modern technology offers hope.

Last year, Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood introduced the first RoboBees, bee-size robots with the ability to lift off the ground and hover midair when tethered to a power supply. The details were published in the journal Science. A coauthor of that report, Harvard graduate student and mechanical engineer Kevin Ma, tells Business Insider that the team is “on the eve of the next big development.” Says Ma: “The robot can now carry more weight.”

The project represents a breakthrough in the field of micro-aerial vehicles. It had previously been impossible to pack all the things needed to make a robot fly onto such a small structure and keep it lightweight.

RoboBees

Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees

Bees and other pollinating insects play an essential role in ecosystems. A third of all our food depends on their pollination. A world without pollinators would be devastating for food production. Since the late 1990s, beekeepers around the world have observed the mysterious and sudden disappearance of bees, and report unusually high rates of decline in honeybee colonies. Although the exact causes are not yet fully understood, growing evidence suggests that chemical-intensive farming methods and the use of insecticides play a major role. Greenpeace has now launched a campaign demanding urgent action to address this issue – including a ban on the most harmful chemicals, along with increased science funding and more sustainable agricultural practices.

Harvard University

Superthin robot wings flap 120 times a second.

A Bee-Placement?

The researchers believe that as soon as 10 years from now these RoboBees could artificially pollinate a field of crops, a critical development if the commercial pollination industry cannot recover from severe yearly losses over the past decade.

The White House underscored what’s at stake, noting that the loss of bees and other species “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.” Honeybees alone contribute more than $15 billion in value to U.S. agricultural crops each year.

But RoboBees are not yet a viable technological solution. First, the tiny bots have to be able to fly on their own and “talk” to one another to carry out tasks like a real honeybee hive.

“RoboBees will work best when employed as swarms of thousands of individuals, coordinating their actions without relying on a single leader,” Wood and colleagues wrote in an article for Scientific American. “The hive must be resilient enough so that the group can complete its objectives even if many bees fail.”

Although Wood wrote that CCD and the threat it poses to agriculture were part of the original inspiration for creating a robotic bee, the devices aren’t meant to replace natural pollinators forever. We still need to focus on efforts to save these vital creatures. RoboBees would serve as “stopgap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented,” the project’s website says.

Harvard’s Kevin Ma spoke to Business Insider about the team’s progress in building the bee-size robot since publishing its Science paper last year.

Following is an edited version of that interview.

Business Insider: Where are you a little over a year after it was announced that the first robotic insect took flight?

Robobees

Harvard University/Kevin Ma/Pakpong Chirarattananon

The RoboBee must be able to carry flight muscles, sensors, and a battery – and weigh less than a gram.

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