Beyond pollination, there are many other possible applications for these robobees including:
- 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;
- space exploration
At nearly the size of an actual honey bee, these robobees are made of carbon fibers and carry their own power supply and electronics. The wings are flapped by using voltage to control a piezoelectric element that connects to the wings. Currently, the team is working on refining the battery to allow for extended flights. Right now, they are using wires to connect to a traditional battery for testing.
But perhaps the most amazing aspect of the robobees is the goal to have a colony of robobees that can communicate with each other. The goal is to have robobees disperse, find where flowers are blooming, and communicate with the rest of the hive. They are not quite there yet as there are many hurdles to overcome.
One of the biggest hurdles is to develop a low power method to allow communication. Current wifi technology is power-hungry and has limited range. GPS and other technologies are also power intensive. If battery weight and power were not an issue, then any type of wireless communication might work but battery weight is a limiting factor.
The researchers describe the battery problem as a catch-22: The heavier the battery, the more juice is needed for flight, the more battery power is needed, and so on. Nonetheless, advances in technology should yield a solution within the next several years. Perhaps it will be a hybrid battery solution that allows for solar charging.
Here is what the Harvard website says about the robobees:
From flies to fish to lobsters, small insects and animals have long been ideal models for roboticists and computer scientists. Bees, for example, possess unmatched elegance in flight, zipping from flower to flower with ease and hovering stably with heavy payloads.
By leveraging existing breakthroughs from Professor Wood’s Microrobotics Lab, which conducted the first successful flight of a life-sized robotic fly in 2007, the team will explore ways to emulate such aerobatic feats in their proposed devices. In addition, achieving autonomous flight will require compact high-energy power sources and associated electronics, integrated seamlessly into the ‘body’ of the machine.
One of the most complicated areas of exploration the scientists will undertake will be the creation of a suite of artificial “smart” sensors, akin to a bee’s eyes and antennae. Professor Wei explains that the ultimate aim is to design dynamic hardware and software that serves as the device’s ‘brain,’ controlling and monitoring flight, sensing objects such as fellow devices and other objects, and coordinating simple decision-making.
Finally, to mimic the sophisticated behavior of a real colony of insects will involve the development of sophisticated coordination algorithms, communications methods (i.e., the ability for individual machines to ‘talk’ to one another and the hive), and global-to-local programming tools to simulate the ways groups of real bees rely upon one another to scout, forage, and plan.