Why Robot Bees Are a Great Idea

Harvard's RoboBee is inspired by the biology and behavior of a bee. (Photo: Harvard University/YouTube)

While everyone from backyard beekeepers to Morgan Freeman is working on saving the bees, scientists are jumping into the fray and bringing robotic versions of the buzzing pollinators along with them.

Researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology created a drone that transports pollen between flowers. It's tiny at just 4 centimeters wide and weighing only half an ounce. (You can see them in action in the above video.) And as New Scientist reports, it's effective when it comes to cross-pollinating:

The bottom is covered in horsehair coated in a special sticky gel. When the drone flies onto a flower, pollen grains stick lightly to the gel, then rub off on the next flower visited. In experiments, the drone was able to cross-pollinate Japanese lilies ( Lilium japonicum). Moreover, the soft, flexible animal hairs did not damage the stamens or pistils when the drone landed on the flowers.

And at Harvard University, robotocists designed RoboBees, tiny robots inspired by the "biology of a bee and the insect's hive behavior."

Helper bees, not substitutes

I was quick to judge these robotic bees when I first head about them, based only on this headline: "Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees."

"Sure," I thought, "Why bother saving the bees when we can build robot bees, and build factories and use precious resources to make them. What could be bad about that?"

Then I took the time to learn what Harvard is doing. Yes, one of the possible functions of the RoboBees (shown in the above video) is pollination of crops. Real bees are critical to pollination. Without the pollination they provide, it's estimated that 85 percent of the Earth's plant species would be in danger. Right now, the bees are in danger. Colony collapse disorder has been decimating the bee population for years, and as mentioned above, there's a lot of work being done to figure out why it's happening and how to combat it.

But the RoboBee is designed to do much more than pollination. Harvard lists all the useful applications this tiny robotic device can provide:

  • autonomously pollinating a field of crops
  • search and rescue (e.g., in the aftermath of a natural disaster)
  • hazardous environment exploration
  • military surveillance
  • high-resolution weather and climate mapping
  • traffic monitoring

There are already electronic devices that can do these types of tasks, but the RoboBees have the potential to do them more efficiently, according to the designers.

In mimicking the physical and behavioral robustness of insect groups by coordinating large numbers of small, agile robots, we will be able to accomplish such tasks faster, more reliably, and more efficiently.

Walmart gets in on the action

In 2017, the corporation filed six patent applications with the U.S. government to build drones. Similar to Harvard's RoboBees, some of Walmart's drones help with cross-pollination by using cameras and sensors to identify pollen on one plant and carry it to another.

But bee-like drones aren't the only drones Walmart wants to build. Its other patents focus on alleviating crop damage by using drones to monitor, identify, track and eliminate pests.

Now why would Walmart want to help the farming industry? CB Insights said the company "increasing its involvement in agriculture could help the company differentiate its food offerings and increase its focus on transparency and sustainability, as well as help mitigate inconsistent or unpredictable crop yields."

There's no word yet on when Walmart would start building the drones if the patents are approved.

Until then, we must continue to learn what's causing colony collapse disorder and bring the honeybee populations back to healthy numbers. But, having bee drones as a backup is not a bad idea, and the tiny robots' other uses offer even more reasons to be in favor of the RoboBees.