By Timon Singh,
Honey bee populations around the world are in decline due to causes ranging from ‘super mites‘ to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and even cell phones – and if the insects disappear completely the planet’s ecosystems would be in peril. The issue has become so dire that now a team of Harvard and Northeastern University scientists are working on a swarm of miniature Robobee robots that could pollinate flowers and do the job of real bees if required.
Speaking to Scientific American, the team leaders said: “In 2009 the three of us began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. 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.”
The biomimicking scheme, also known as the Micro Air Vehicles Project, aims to “push advances in miniature robotics and the design of compact high-energy power sources; spur innovations in ultra-low-power computing and electronic “smart” sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines”.
Nice – but what does that mean in layman’s terms? Well, by coordinating large numbers of small, agile robots to mimic the physical and behavioral robustness of insect groups, the program could direct a swarm of robots to accomplish tasks faster more reliably, and more efficiently than a single unit.
Not only could they be used to pollinate flowers (in theory), but they could also be used for search and rescue, hazardous environment exploration (such as a nuclear disaster sites), high-resolution weather and climate mapping and traffic monitoring. Here’s hoping we never need them for the job that their real-life counterparts provide.