Inspired by the biology of insects like bees, a research team at Harvard’s school of engineering and applied science is developing man-made robotic bees that could play a key role in the future, the Robobees.

A Robobee measures about half of a paper clip, weights less than a tenth of a gram and flies using artificial muscles comprised of materials that contract when a voltage is applied. Rotary motors, gears, nuts or bolds cannot be used on such a scale, as even small amount of turbulence would cause the Robobee to fall off.  The robot includes various smart sensors like a vision or a UV sensor to move around its environment. The problem is that the robot is even too small to carry the tiniest microchips, meaning that the Robobee cannot take decisions on its own. It has to transmit the collected data aver a wire to a computer for interpretation. One of the final goals in the development of the Robobee will be to make them fly in a swarm.

The Robobee project was initially funded by the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in the hope that it would help creating stealth surveillance robots for the battlefield and urban environments. However, Robert Wood, the man behind the project, also sees other possible applications for his technology. The Robobees could be for example used for:

  • Crop pollination (The projects website states they don’t see robotic pollinations as a viable solution, but only as a stop-gap measure while natural pollinators are restored.)
  • Search and rescue missions, particularly after natural disasters
  • High-resolution weather and climate mapping
  • Environmental monitoring

Although this technology is still at least 20 years from being implemented, research is going well and major advances have been achieved recently. In a recent article in the Science journal, the scientists explain how the Robobees are now able to perch and takeoff from nearly any surface using electrostatic adhesion, allowing them to maintain a high vantage point without wasting on-board power.

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