These Little Robot Bees Could Pollinate the Fields of the Future

March 18, 2013



Plagued by colony collapse disorder, the honeybees that do much of  the world’s pollination work are in decline, and cheap access to many flowering  plants that we depend on for food—from almonds to apples to soybeans—could follow them  down.


Ideally, some intrepid scientist will find a fix for CCD, and the bees will  be saved. But there could also be a technological solution to the pollination  problem. Researchers have recently worked out the basics of a robotic bee which  they say could be used to pollinate plants, search through disaster zones, or  perform any variety of tasks where a small swarm of cooperative robots might  come in handy.


Some of the scientists behind the project, Robert Wood, Radhika Nagpal and Gu-Yeon Wei, wrote recently in Scientific American about their  efforts:


Superficially, the task appears nearly impossible. Bees have been sculpted by  millions of years of evolution into incredible flying machines. Their tiny  bodies can fly for hours, maintain stability during wind gusts, seek out flowers  and avoid predators. Try that with a nickel-size robot.


They detail how they get their little bees to fly using a series of custom  designed artificial muscles “made of piezoelectric materials that contract when  you apply a voltage across their thickness.”


Instead of spinning motors and gears, we designed the RoboBee with an anatomy  that closely mirrors an airborne insect—flapping wings powered by (in this case)  artificial muscles. Our muscle system uses separate “muscles” for power and  control. Relatively large power actuators oscillate the wing-thorax mechanism to  power the wing stroke while smaller control actuators fine-tune wing motions to  generate torque for control and maneuvering.


“These muscles generate an amount of power comparable to those muscles in  insects of similar size,” they write.


More than just the mechanics of bee movement, however, the scientists also  want to train their little robobees to behave like a real colony—interacting,  communicating, working together for the good of the hive. They suggest that they  still have a fair bit of work ahead of them, but they expect to see them in the  wild in five to 10 years.


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