In the dystopian future, flowers have wilted to weeds and farms are nearly barren. World starvation is rampant, with severe drops in population across all countries. First World countries clutch onto their supplies of food tightly, a resource that is more valuable than petroleum in this new age. But what’s that sound? Is that a honeybee, a species thought to be extinct since 2020? One buzz becomes many as a horde of grey sweeps the horizon. Together, they come down onto the few flowers and crops that remain, and they begin a ritual long forgotten: pollination. RoboBees are here to save the day!
Now, enough science-fiction. RoboBees, or Autonomous Flying Microrobots, is a project at Harvard that has been making headlines since they performed the first microbot flight in 2013. Due to recent scares caused by dwindling populations of bees and other pollinators (such as butterflies), the project has been receiving much more recognition as a potential solution to the problem. They wish to keep the science-fiction described above as simply fiction, rather than have it become a prediction.
How can robotic bees help to prevent this catastrophe? Well, you see, a RoboBee is meant to mimic a real bee’s actions. According to the scientists at Harvard working on the development process, “…The RoboBee development is broadly divided into three main components: the Body, Brain, and Colony.” The body refers to the desire to make a lightweight design that also contains a sufficient battery life for long treks of pollination. The CPU, or the “brain,” holds sensors that will help in navigation and in discovering “docking sites.” The colony is of the hivemind ideology that bees possess – it is how they work together to efficiently pollinate a field and not crash into each other mid-flight. A RoboBee is able to perform its tasks through remote control, but using thousands of such machines at once can only be done through automated processes. This will require several more years of research, with a possible completion year of 2025.
The life of a RoboBee will consist of docking near flowers and using a method of pollen extraction via thin fibers coated with ionic liquid gel. This is an adhesive substance which will stick to the pollen and carry it until the RoboBee is ready to deposit it onto the next flower.
Sadly, RoboBees will not be able to produce honey, which is created through the use of special digestive enzymes unique to the honey bee. They are only meant to assist in the pollination process as researchers attempt to find ways to save bee populations from extinction. So why is it so important that honeybees may become extinct? Well, without bees, there would be very little pollination of flowers and crops. Without the pollination of flowers, there would be a severe drop in their population. This would limit the supply of certain medications and perfumes, whose prices would skyrocket. Without the pollination of crops, there would be a drop in food supply, which would cause food prices to increase and result in global food shortages.
The destruction of bee populations has been traced to a pesticide which is designed to prevent the destruction of crops by insects. Neonicotinoid pesticides (NPs) have been linked to a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD causes worker bees to abandon their hive mentality and wander off from the queen bee. This leads to a lack of food for younger bees, and for the queen bee herself, and can cause the destruction of the colony. To make matters worse, NPs spread like a disease. As bees affected by CCD travel to other fields, they can carry the pesticides and contaminate other hives.
Through the use of RoboBees, the cycle of pollination may continue as usual. Whether or not they can completely take over for an extinct race of pollinators is still up for debate, but the hope is that they would only be used to prevent the destruction of precious flora. One day, there may be fields filled with swarming metal robots, rather than our fuzzy little friends.