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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