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RoboBees to save US agriculture

Mark Gibbs | July 30, 2014
What man breaks, man can fix ... at least, that's what we like to think. Consider, for example, bees. Bees of all species are dying off in the US and Europe and over the last few years we've seen the commercial beekeeping industry decimated by a syndrome called colony collapse disorder (CCD).

What man breaks, man can fix ... at least, that's what we like to think. Consider, for example, bees. Bees of all species are dying off in the US and Europe and over the last few years we've seen the commercial beekeeping industry decimated by a syndrome called colony collapse disorder (CCD). 

Researchers have been looking for the causative factors of CCD for several years and the leading culprit is now believed to be the cocktail of pesticides used by the agriculture industry. The problem with this problem is simple: No one wants to give up their pesticides. Not Big Agriculture (the Agriculture-Industrial Complex), not the pesticide manufacturers (e.g. Monsanto and Bayer), and not the government regulators (specifically the Environmental Protection Agency). 

Despite mounting evidence that pesticides are to blame it looks like nothing will happen and bees, crucial to food production, the economy (bees are directly responsible for pollinating crops worth around $15 billion each year), and the pollination of thousands of species of non-agricultural plants, could go the way of the passenger pigeon. The concept of "better safe than sorry" is apparently not something any of these entities subscribe to.

So, how will we, mankind, fix this problem? According to some people the answer is robots, specifically robot bees. 

Just over a year ago, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvardannounced the "RoboBee", a device smaller than a quarter weighing and just a tenth of a gram that could hover and follow a preplanned flight path. Since then the team that developed the RoboBee have improved the design (see Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees for an interview with Kevin Ma, the Harvard researcher developing the RoboBee technology).

Obviously the RoboBee has a long way to go before it can rival the abilities of real bees but according to the RoboBees Project:

If robots were used for pollination — and we are at least 20 years away from that possibility — it would only be as a stop-gap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators.

What would the RoboBee of the future look like and how would it behave? Greenpeace broke out their crystal ball and gazed into the future:

GREENPEACE - NEW BEES from Polynoid on Vimeo.

The only flaw in the Greenpeace video is that the "New Bees" are missing a logo. For example:

These flying devices have lots of other potential applications. Again, according to the RoboBees Project:

Coordinated agile robotic insects can be used for a variety of purposes including:

  • 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; and
  • traffic monitoring.

 

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