A mysterious disease is sweeping through U.S. communities, killing millions of valuable workers, but you haven’t heard about it on the nightly news. That’s because the communities are beehives and the valuable workers are bees. While not as shocking as a human plague, this epidemic, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is no less of a threat to our existence.
There’s a very real possibility that CCD will decimate our bee populations before a solution can be found. Without bees, our ability to produce food in necessary quantities will disappear. In 2009 three researchers, along with colleagues at Harvard University and Northeastern University, began to devise a backup plan: robotic bees.
The Robobee Project (more officially titled “the Micro Air Vehicles Project”) is an adventure in the uncharted world of very, very small robotics. “Their size presents a huge assortment of physical and computational challenges,” reports Scientific American. “At such small dimensions, off-the-shelf parts such as motors and bearings will prove too inefficient, so the bees must employ specially designed artificial muscles to power and control flight.”
The official purpose of the project isn’t to stop CCD, but the researchers acknowledge that it could be a happy by-product if the program is successful. They hope Robobee will help them understand how to artificially mimic the collective behavior and “intelligence” of a bee colony, and to foster novel methods for designing and building an electronic surrogate nervous system able to deftly sense and adapt to changing environments.
A real honeybee’s greatest asset is the hive mentality: a sense of purpose and responsibility within a larger community system. The worker bees understand the importance of the Queen’s survival, and spend their lives seeking food that will allow her to continue the species. The fact that they pollinate our entire food system while doing so is unbeknownst to them. Will scientists ever be able to infuse a robot with the same instincts and determination? We’ll have to wait and see.