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Though scientists have known about Colony-Collapse Disorder, the phrase used to describe the untimely deaths of millions of honey bees across the globe for many years, nobody has yet been able to ascertain why. With bees responsible for pollinating crops worth in excess of $200 billion USD a year, something has to be done to avert what could soon become a global food crisis.
While scientists are still trying to solve that mystery, researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have been working on an alternative - A robotic bee! Unveiled earlier this month, the Robo Bee is about half the size of a paperclip and weighs less than a tenth of a gram (.003 oz). And though named 'bee', it is actually modeled after a fly, complete with two extremely thin wings that are capable of flapping at a rate of 120 times per second.
As you can imagine, building a robot the size of a honey bee has been no easy task. Robert J. Wood, the principal investigator of the Robo Bee project and his team, have been working on it for the last 12 years and while they finally have a working prototype, there are still some challenges to surmount before the bees can be deployed.
According to Robert and co-lead authors Kevin Y. Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, both graduate student at SEAS, creating such a tiny bot was challenging because everything, ranging from the apparatus to the technology, had to be custom-built. For instance, in order to make the robot flap its wings, the researchers could not buy off-the shelf products, but instead had to build tiny piezoelectric actuators (strings of ceramic that expand when an electric field is applied).
But just flapping the wings was not enough - They had to also give it a 'brain' or enough autonomous sense to fly around and even know how to avoid being swatted just like other insects. This was not an easy task because the technology had to be small enough to fit inside the bee's tiny carbon fiber body. The biggest issue the researchers faced however, was making the various custom-built components work together seamlessly - Which means the process had to be constantly repeated, using new prototypes.
In order to make building new test models easier, the team came up with a manufacturing technique that was inspired by children's pop-up books. Now, instead of manually creating each prototype they have most of it ready and are able to try different materials in various combinations to try make the Robo Bee even more robust.
While structurally the Robo-Bee whose usefulness could range from pollination to search & rescue operations and environmental monitoring, is almost ready to go into full-fledged production, the researchers still have two major issues to solve - coming up with a portable battery that can last longer than a few seconds so that the bee can buzz around for hours and weatherproofing the robo insect, because as it turns out the current model does not seem to handle rain or wind too well!
Resources: fastcompany.com, seas.harvard.edu