RoboBee: Powerful Swarm Intelligence at Half the Size of a Paper Clip

As modern problems of the 21st century increasingly prove to require modern solutions, researchers are looking to nature for such answers. One way the natural world inspires the technology of tomorrow is through the creation of biomimicry robots, which are artificial forms of life modelled after the biology of living creatures. A research team led by Robert Wood at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for biologically inspired engineering has created such a bio-bot with the development of the RoboBee. The RoboBee is an autonomously flying microrobot developed in 2013 and is based on the skeletal structure and behaviour of bees.

Weighing less than one-tenth of a gram and standing at only half the size of a paper clip, the RoboBee harbours artificial soft muscles and smart sensors mimicking the eyes and antennae of a bee. The RoboBee can ‘perch’ on surfaces with static electricity, swim underwater and transition quickly to flying, as well as contract their ‘muscles’ with voltage shocks. To top off the Robobee’s impressive list of accomplishments, it is also ‘accident-proof‘. Due to these unique functional capabilities for a robot of its size, the RoboBee is intended to be deployed where humans and other robots can’t reach and where they cannot perform tasks with ease and accuracy.

Aiming to create micro-aerial vehicles capable of autonomous functioning and co-ordinated behaviour of swarm intelligence, the RoboBee followed a threefold development process focusing on the Body, the Brain and the Colony. The Body involves creating a bot capable of autonomous flight under a single, unified power source directive. The Brain refers to the integration of sensors and electronics that make up the biomimicry components of the bot, with the Colony centred around behaviour coordination amongst the swarm of the RoboBees.

Heralded as the ‘future of civilian drones‘, the RoboBees have shown great potential in surveillance-based applications. However, surveillance need not be limited to civilian uses, as RoboBees are thought to be capable of a wide variety of ecological observation tasks, ranging from high-resolution weather tracking to climate monitoring. In addition, the RoboBee is hoped to be of use for the agricultural sector, especially in automated tasks such as crop pollination. Although typically performed by actual bees themselves, declines in their biological population call for alternatives to ensure the proper maintenance and growth of critical staple crops. With such a broad range of possible uses, the RoboBee highlights the ever-increasing feasibility of technology that seeks to innovate from sources that can be found right in our backyard.


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Photo by Courtenay Crane