Honeybees, which are of the greatest commercial interest, pollinate about a third of what we eat, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. Thirty-one percent of US bee colonies were lost in the winter of 2013 alone. Then, as the future of the honeybees seems dire indeed, the cavalry of the robots rushes to the rescue of the flowering plants and trees. Although they are not yet deployed into the waiting blossoms, they already have a name: robobees.
The current leader in robobees technology is a team at Harvard University. In May 2013, their School of Engineering and Applied Sciences announced that an experimental prototype of the robobee made its first controlled flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it powered upward, hovered on its delicate flapping wings, and flew away.
Writing in the Scientific American, the team leaders said, “In 2009 the three of us began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual’s behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees. We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.”
A major engineering breakthrough was finding a way to power the high speed flapping of the 3 cm wings. The solution was piezoelectric effect actuators. Electric fields applied to tiny ceramic strips cause them to flap the bee’s wings at 120 times per second.
Read more at the Winter of the Genomes website.