Bionic Bees Pollinate Plants When Real Live Bees Can’t

As Colony Collapse Disorder, mites and other threats to the world’s honeybee population incite worries about how agriculture might be affected, Harvard University researchers have a futuristic solution: RoboBees. These bionic bees could fly from flower to flower, pollinating crops the same way living honeybees would. While they’re not exactly a replacement for nature, they could be a real help, and also offer search-and-rescue capabilities.

These mechanical bees are not much larger than the real thing, and they could be coordinated to autonomously pollinate a field of crops, search for survivors in the aftermath of a natural disaster, explore hazardous environments, traffic monitoring and high-resolution weather and climate mapping. Of course, Harvard notes that they’re also useful for military surveillance.

The next step, according to the researchers, is to use these bionic bees to gain a greater understanding of how to artificially mimic the collective behavior and ‘intelligence’ of a bee colony. It could also advance work on the construction of other small-scale flying robots. They also aim to design dynamic software to mimic a bee’s brain as well as complex ‘smart sensors’ akin to a bee’s eyes and antennae.

“In 2009 the three of us began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony,” the researchers told Scientific American. “We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual’s behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees. We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.”

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