Could Robots Replace Bees?

December 10, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

Photo credit: Harvard University/Youtube

RoboBees can fly and swim. But can they pollinate?

Bees are not doing well. You’ve probably heard all about it — bees have been dying out like crazy due to what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Will all of our scientific and technological advancements, it’s surprising that we haven’t been able to come up with a robotic solution… until now. Researchers from Harvard University have been working for over a decade to develop a RoboBee.

The big question is: Could robotic bees actually replace natural ones? The short answer is: sort of.

SEE ALSO: Tiny Backpacks Could Solve Mystery of Massive Bee Deaths

RoboBees weigh less than one tenth of a gram and are half the size of a paperclip. By flapping their wings made of a polymer a membrane and carbon fibre supports at a rate of twice per second, they can fly and hover just like regular bees. This isn’t actually anything new, however. The researchers succeeded in this endeavor in 2013.

The novel breakthrough lies in the fact that they have found a way to make RoboBees swim. "The interesting aspect is the observation that the fluid mechanics of the RoboBee wings are similar for high-frequency flapping in air and low-frequency flapping in water," says Robert Wood, Engineering professor Robert J. Wood, founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, in email to How Stuff Works. "Simply by changing the frequency upon entering water, a similar wing motion is achieved and similar forces are generated."

One of the main downsides of these RoboBees is their need for power. Currently, they can only stay aloft for a few minutes at a time. However, there is hope that someday they might be able to make longer flights, equipped with GPS systems to guide them and tiny radio transmitters to collect data.

Wood is hopeful that they could eventually — at least 20 years from now — be used to assist bees in pollinating flowers. However, it is not seen as a long-term option or a replacement for the disappearing insects.

Instead, they could play a more important role in water quality monitoring, assist in search and rescue missions, explore hazardous environments or even help figure out why the bees are disappearing in the first place. "We would be much better served finding and solving the root causes of colony collapse disorder, as opposed to creating a robotic solution to replace pollinators," says Wood.

The team’s website suggests that they chose to study bees because of the multidisciplinary nature of the project. “We are a team of experts from many fields—biology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science—and we believe that crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries facilitates new discovery.” They are also working hard to promote STEM by “leveraging the tangible nature of [his] robotics projects.” Even if they can’t replace the bees or stop them from dying off, those both sound like valuable undertakings.

Read next: Global Warming Particularly Tough on Bees

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