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Scientists hope tiny robotic bee's big dreams take flight

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, 11:39 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon
With a submillimeter-scale anatomy and two wafer-thin wings that flap almost invisibly, 120 times per second, a robotic insect is a decade in the making between the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.
photo courtesy of Beth Malandain | Museum of Science
Visitors view the 'Microrobotics Takes Flight exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston. A professor at Harvard University is developing a robotic bee with aid from a $8 million National Science grant that might well be the answer to the downward spiral of pollination due to the current bee die-off.

Nearly a decade into a honeybee crisis, the idea was inevitable — a robotic bee.

Harvard University researcher Robert Wood, professor of engineering and applied sciences, has a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop just such a device.

The intention is for RoboBee, about the size of a penny, to pollinate crops and perform other tasks, from military surveillance to searches.

“It is still very basic research. This is not a replacement for natural pollinators, at least not now. That could change in several decades,” Wood said.

Crops from pumpkins to blueberries, apples and almonds depend on pollination from honey bees, whose populations have been decimated during the past decade by colony collapse disorder.

That little-understood disease has baffled scientists, frustrated beekeepers and growers, and fueled the imagination of the public, which has blamed the bee die-off on everything from cell phones to the Rapture.

Getting a small, insect-like robot to work is a far bigger challenge than making a workable, large robot, scientists said. Getting it to fly adds layers of complication.

So far, RoboBee's flapping wings produce only enough thrust for takeoff, but not extended flight. In addition to designing the bee's brain and body, researchers have to figure out how to get the robots to communicate so their activities can be coordinated.

Robotic tools normally include rotary bearings, electromagnetic motors and gears. All are too large and heavy for RoboBee, Wood said.

Small, portable power sources are needed to power the robot for long periods of time, while refined engineering techniques are needed to stabilize the devices in mid-flight, he said.

RoboBees need sensors to detect flowers as a bee's antennae and eyes would.

The challenges are vast, said May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois and a honeybee expert, who is not involved in the research.

“It is a pretty sweeping idea. But who ever thought Wilbur and Orville would get off the ground? We really need to do something about delivery of pollination services that's in line with the 21st century,” she said.

About a third of all managed honeybee colonies died each winter since 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture. Pollination adds $15 billion to the value of agriculture, the USDA says.

“Colony collapse disorder was probably an inspiration for this project. When you have a problem so big, there's really always a tendency to try to think of some way to fix it,” said Kenneth Whang, the project's manager at the National Science Foundation.

During the past five years, the foundation, which is federally financed, has spent more than $10 million on research to develop a robotic bee. First issued in 2009, the grant funds research at Harvard and Northeastern universities.

Metin Sitti, a mechanical engineer and head of Carnegie Mellon University's nanorobotics lab, which is not involved in the research, said a robotic honeybee is about a decade from being functional.

“They are building insect-sized things. That is very challenging right now, to make them autonomous. Hummingbird-sized robots are about the smallest that work well,” Sitti said.

Colony collapse disorder is not the only rationale for the grant, Whang said.

The artificial insect could be used to search after disasters, for exploration of hazardous environments, military surveillance, high-resolution weather and climate mapping, and for traffic monitoring, researchers say.

Wood, the project's lead researcher, is uncertain robotic insects will replace natural pollinators.

“I'm not sure, even if they worked perfectly, that it would ever be a viable economic alternative to natural pollination,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or

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