While everyone from backyard beekeepers to President Obama to Morgan Freeman is working on saving the bees, scientists at Harvard University are working to replace them. They're designing RoboBees, tiny robots inspired by the "biology of a bee and the insect's hive behavior."
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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 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 being designed to do much more than pollination.
Harvard's RoboBee website 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.
We must continue to learn what's causing colony collapse disorder and bring the honeybee populations back to healthy numbers. But, having RoboBees 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.