Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been receiving a lot of press due to its potential to wreak environmental and economic havoc in this country and around the world. This is the phenomenon that has resulted in dramatic reduction of honeybees worldwide threatening agriculture and ecosystems to be left without pollination. Honeybees pollinate approximately one-third of the world’s food crops, so no pollination could mean no food. In fact, this issue is so alarming it has spurred a presidential memorandum creating the Pollinator Health Task Force enlisting the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation and the Department of the Interior to examine the causes and possible solutions to CCD.
While saving and preserving bee populations is highly preferable to replacing them, Harvard University is working on an interesting approach. Enter robot bees. Humans have been engineering mechanical and robotic solutions to agricultural, manual labor and mass production problems for years, so creation of an automatic pollinator seems like a logical next step. Some worry about the turn towards robotics to supplement the work force or increase efficiency, even though we have replaced many jobs previously held by animals with machines with little complaint.
Last year Harvard announced that their prototype RoboBee had taken flight. It is a fraction of the size of a paper clip and took over a decade to develop. This first model still requires a thin, cable tether, and is not artificially intelligent or programmed to perform “bee behaviors” on its own. However, its launch has raised significant interest from the scientific community, as noted in the Journal Science, Scientific American and other respected publications.
The flight mechanisms of the robot bees are complex, but it is still a viable option for carrying small loads such as pollen or even tiny cameras (suitable for uses outside of the agricultural realm such as search and rescue). While only biological bees can make honey, RoboBees may be a viable option as a stop-gap measure for CCD. It may still be years in the future before we have swarms of robot bees pollinating crops or flying over vast areas to locate stranded or missing people, but you can count of the scientific community, agricultural professionals and even the White House to be closely tracking the progress of robot bees.