Are robobees the bees’ knees?

Science and Technology

Disclaimer: we do not hold any responsibility for humour failure due to unfunny bee puns.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Obviously not – you should be able to tell that by the title. Ask the question we want to answer – is it actually a bee?

If you are a regular watcher of either the news or Doctor Who, you will be aware that the bee population has been in dramatic decline. The cause is still unknown but the effects of the disappearing insects is quite clear; not only will honey and toast become a rare delicacy, but many other foodstuffs will not be produced due to a lack of pollination the flowers by the bees, and we are at risk of famines across the world.

In 2009, engineers at Harvard university came up with an unlikely solution: the Robobee. If they could design a synthetic bee, they could be programmed to do the job of pollination of crops around the world and the food shortage crisis due to the dying of real bees would be avoided.

The robotic insect is an idea that has been flying around the scientific community for thirty or so years, but we have never been able to amass the right technology. Now, huge breakthroughs are being made with the flight, intelligence, and interaction of the models.

So, how does one build a bee? When taking into account not only their ability of flight, but also their sensory capacity and communication abilities with an entire colony, they are highly complex animals.

Firstly, the body. They must beelieve they can fly. Nature has already spent billions of years figuring out the perfect way for small bodies to fly around, so why not simply copy? Using an origami-like method of folding sheets of material, scientists created a lightweight, versatile model based on the design of a bee. The wings are one of the most similar aspects, as the shape proved ideal for flight of the robot. In total, they weigh less than one tenth of a gram, and have a wingspan of about three centimeters. Ideal for all of their bee-substituting functions. One of the main problems still to be tackled is a seemingly simple one: power. So far, modern technology simply does not have a small enough system that can store enough power needed for bee flight. Currently, bees are having to be sustained in flight by small wires. However, with the rapid advances in electrics, it is hoped that a solution to this will be found in the near future.
Secondly, they must beehold what is around them at all times. Like real bees, the robots have sensory antennae which aid in detection and interaction with their environment. This ability to gather data means that it is hoped the bees will one day be used not only for military surveillance, but also for analysing the scenes of natural disasters and for exploring hostile environments where it is considered too dangerous to send people.

Finally, do they beehave like bees? The one of the main characteristics of bees – aside from buzzing, which, as far as I am aware, the Robobees do not do – is communication with their colony. When one says bee, we think beehive. One of the current hottest areas in Robobee research is to establish a mechanisms of liaison with fellow robots. This involves highly complex programming of the bees’ internal control systems, but could eventually lead large groups of them to be able to function just like a natural bee colony. Another issue preventing the perfect bee robot coming to life is the capacity to store information. Researchers are currently attempting to install the most recent small-scale hardware and software so that the bees can be properly programmed, and achieve the level of intelligence required to be able to function independently.
Robot bees may once have seemed an idea out of Scifi films, too farfetched to even consider in the real world. This is proof that thanks to modern science, many of our futuristic ideas are not only entirely feasible, but may soon become an integral part of our everyday lives. We must simply wait, and bee prepared.

PHOTO/Caroline Madigan

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