This Robotic Bee Just Took Flight, To Pollinate Crops And (Maybe) Spy On You

The quarter-sized RoboBee looks like a fly, but it was designed to save us from colony collapse disorder. If the bees die, we have a robot backup.

We take for granted the effortless flight of insects, thinking nothing of swatting a pesky fly and crushing its wings. But this insect is a model of complexity. After 12 years of work, researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have succeeded in creating a fly-like robot. And in early May, they announced that their tiny RoboBee (yes, it’s called a RoboBee even though it’s based on the mechanics of a fly) took flight. In the future, that could mean big things for everything from disaster relief to colony collapse disorder.

The RoboBee isn’t the only miniature flying robot in existence, but the 80-milligram, quarter-sized robot is certainly one of the smallest. "The motivations are really thinking about this as a platform to drive a host of really challenging open questions and drive new technology and engineering," says Harvard professor Robert Wood, the engineering team lead for the project.

When Wood and his colleagues first set out to create a robotic fly, there were no off the shelf parts for them to use. "There were no motors small enough, no sensors that could fit on board. The microcontrollers, the microprocessors—everything had to be developed fresh," says Wood. As a result, the RoboBee project has led to numerous innovations, including vision sensors for the bot, high power density piezoelectric actuators (ceramic strips that expand and contract when exposed to an electrical field), and a new kind of rapid manufacturing that involves layering laser-cut materials that fold like a pop-up book. The actuators assist with the bot’s wing-flapping, while the vision sensors monitor the world in relation to the RoboBee.

"Manufacturing took us quite awhile. Then it was control, how do you design the thing so we can fly it around, and the next one is going to be power, how we develop and integrate power sources," says Wood. In a paper recently published by Science, the researchers describe the RoboBee’s power quandary: it can fly for just 20 seconds—and that’s while it’s tethered to a power source. "Batteries don’t exist at the size that we would want," explains Wood. The researchers explain further in the report: " If we implement on-board power with current technologies, we estimate no more than a few minutes of untethered, powered flight. Long duration power autonomy awaits advances in small, high-energy-density power sources."

The RoboBees don’t last a particularly long time—Wood says the flight time is "on the order of tens of minutes"—but they can keep flapping their wings long enough for the Harvard researchers to learn everything they need to know from each successive generation of bots. For commercial applications, however, the RoboBees would need to be more durable.

So what’s the end-game? Wood says he’s uncomfortable speculating on future uses for the RoboBee, which still needs many years of research before it can be commercialized. But he admits that one of the original motivators for the project was colony collapse disorder. Theoretically, the RoboBee could one day take over for a dwindling bee supply, pollinating crops. The other obvious uses for the RoboBee are in search and rescue (where it could find disaster survivors), where small robots are already common, and environmental marketing.

It also seems likely that someone will eventually use these things for spying. For now, Wood says that the vision sensors can’t deliver video feeds or images. For now.

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  • Kathi Trusky Gonsioroski

    This is a horrible waste of money. Why not STOP Monsanto from killing the real bees with their fake crops?

  • tonibark

    Research at Purdue and Harvard school of public health have all shown insecticides of the neonicatinoids are causing CCD. We know that GMOs are failing and now need this class of insecticides. It is in the industry's best interest to see the bees gone and ownership of either GMO bees or robotic bees. this is truly horrible.

  • Granny Tenderstone

     ...not to mention, Erteiner, they make no mention of any HONEY being produced by robobees!!

    K.O. Maker, thanks for suggesting what we'd presume would be so very obvious, logical and intelligent!

  • Granny Tenderstone

     Mr. Osborn, THANK YOU for stating the obvious.  You can bet your sweet
    bippy that greedy profiteering opportunists are behind the bees
    vanishing, for purposes of exploitation, and it's usually TAX DOLLARS
    the private sector wants in their pockets. Oh and if the research and
    development occurs at the university level, to be then exploited by
    industry, then that's even more tax dollars stolen from MUCH BETTER
    PURSUITS!!  I hope you're on facebook and will add me as a friend, I
    like communicating with logical, thinking people.

    And while they
    are at it, they might want to provide a way for me to actually SEND
    THIS COMMENT in reply to yours, because I've typed all this and now
    there's no button to actually share it.... argh. So I'll enter it as an
    independent comment and hope it reaches you.

  • Granny Tenderstone

    excuse me, were you not aware they have already created robomosquitoes for spying purposes?  you know it's half exciting, half smacking of exploitation of taxpayers. Because that's who will pay for the robobees to replace the REAL BEES that the  GREEDY are probably destroying on purpose. The planet has lost at least one-third of its bees now, and humans are to blame for every bit of that. When the bees are gone, so are we, robobees or no robobees, unless humans figure out how to do as much work as a single bee when it comes to pollinating their own crops. Oh and how much honey do robobees produce??? hmmmm?????
    Science is wonderful, but often wasted.

  • Paul Osborn

    Maybe we should stop doing what is killing the bees instead of building robots. Pesticides have been shown to be a big part of what is killing them. And it is not helping humans either.

  • K.O. Maker

    Fantastic engineering! But I'd rather see engineering life with life on the planet. We've engineered weakened bee genetics and super toxic chemicals, chemicals that are proving to be toxic to humans as well since bees and humans share a huge percentage of the same genome, maybe it is time to reinvestigate the original premise.

  • Erteiner

    I don't think that the bees predators will be safe with these robo-bees. But again, we can not just allow for the human species (And the rest of species outside the bee's foodchain) to be endangered due to colony collapse disorder ...