Robobee is a robot insect realized by Harvard scientists. This micro bot is going to save us all. Honeybees, in fact, are dying at unprecedented rates because of a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The problem is serious, because one-third of the food we eat depends upon pollination. About 80% of plant pollination requires the help of other living to transfer pollen from one plant to another, while just 20% relies on wind. And it’s not enough. Without the pollination honeybees provide, it’s estimated that 85 percent of the Earth’s plant species would be in danger. If bees continue disappearing at this rate, it is estimated that by 2035 there will no honeybees left in the US. Governments are trying to discover the reason why which is probably explained by a mix of diseases, parasites, and pesticides. In the meantime, researchers are developing miniaturized insects which can replace the original ones. From one to a colony, then to a multitude of coordinated hives that can artificially pollinate crops.
How a Robobee works
It’s just apparently easy. The reality is proving to be extremely challenging. Current robobees use a process called piezoelectricity to convert electricity into motion. The problem is that energy is given to the robot through a wire. This clearly limits the range of movements. The target is to design a small exoskeleton to house the bee’s wings, motors, brain and electronics. A wing speed of 120 flaps per second, today allows the robobee to fly and when reduced at 9 to immerse into water. Researchers used deionized water and coated the electrical connections with glue to prevent the robot from shorting. Anyway, in its 80 mg and 3 centimeters, it’s still pretty dumb.
A potential development would be to equip the micro bot with a laser-based version of a radar (Lidar). University of Florida is developing this portion of the project. It would then emit invisible laser pulses, safe for human eyes. This way it could calculate distance, size and shape of objects. It’s the same technology used on driverless cars, but on a smaller scale, in fact, it is only 56 milligrams! Fitting this micro device into the robobee is not easy at all. If you are asking why they are not using a camera, the answer is simple. There is not enough space. Depth perception with cameras requires they are spaced a minimum distance apart, like eyes. Last but not least, a Lidar would consume less power to operate.
The power issue would be solved using the hive as a recharging station or exploiting solar energy, but, once again, the miniaturization is a challenge. Storing energy will also be fundamental, because in theory a micro bot does not need light to operate, so some tasks might be performed at night. Today a range of solutions is under examination: ultramicro batteries, fuel cells and wireless power-transfer methods. None has proved to be the best yet.
For mass production, Harvard’s team developed a folding assembly, inspired, in a lot of ways, by a children’s pop-up book. This topic is crucial, because the numbers are huge. In US they estimate there are still 2,4 m hives for commercial use. Every hive usually counts about 50.000 honeybees. If you do the math, it’s about 120 bn tiny robobees just to maintain the current level of production just in the US. And they have to cooperate. We struggle to create a single artificial intelligence, this scenario is about a collective artificial intelligence. Scientists have still to find solutions to simplify communication, allow them to recognize flowers and plants, make decisions etc… If we project the technology ahead of 20 years we can imagine current problems will be solved: they will be alimented by solar energy, have a low maintenance cost, will never get tired and escape easily from predators. Yes, because they will fit into an environment with clear rules and predators might spend some time before understanding the micro bot is not tasty at all.
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What a micro bot can do
Robobee is a big project and this is just the beginning. These robotic insects, in fact, can have many applications: search and rescue, hazardous environment exploration, military surveillance, high resolution weather and climate mapping and traffic monitoring. Recently I’ve read about the possibility to monitor bridges and structures where human access is difficult. In US, one in 9 bridges is “structurally deficient”, as average age nears 50 years, which means 260 million daily trips on risky bridges. Robobees could scan them easily and faster than human workers. I have listen to comments comparing drones and robobees; why develop something complex and small, when a standard drone can do many of the tasks of a robobee? I think this comment does not make sense when the task is pollination. For all other jobs, I believe the real benefit of the robobees is the swarm and the ability to transmit big quantity of information from many points. If you have to launch a thousand units into a tornado to get information about its evolution, temperature, air composition etc… would you use robobees or drones? I think the smaller the better. Especially if the cost of a robotic insect is lower than a big drone. Some applications are less obvious, but promising: detection of seismic faults, identification of undiscovered mineral deposits, architectural planning, sewer maintenance, gathering of scientific data on the field, tracking a chemical spill etc…
On the other side we understand the potential risks on privacy created by robot swarms that can move silently and undetected. At the extreme there’s the possibility that they can form an autonomous army of their own. The scenario is evolving fast, but the largest swarm ever coordinated, a recent (2014) achievement at Harvard, is “just” 1024 units. The Harvard Gazette defined this moment as the “The first 1,000-robot flash mob has assembled at Harvard University.” Nobody is talking yet about interaction with humans. When it comes to anthropomorphic robots we imagine them in our houses to assist us, but also a micro bot can augment humans. Located on your shoulder, it can be a third eye, locate dangers or friends around us, slide under doors to watch who or what is in and communicate with other bees to collect information. Of course if a micro-component or a robotic part falls on the floor, it’s too small to ever be found, but that’s another story.
Below a video dedicated to a second generation of robobees, coming with a fundamental question: “should we create a new world or save our own?”
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