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Gardening & Agriculture gardening   agriculture General

Robot bees are all the buzz

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by: Ariana M
robot bees are all the buzz

It is no secret that human activity has had a profound impact on our planet. We’ve destroyed large parts of Malaysian forests,polluted our oceans and turned one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World into a dump, but it all pales in comparison with our impact on some of the most important beings on Earth – bees.

Bees are vital for food production, as according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States bees pollinate 71% of the 100 crop species that provide us with 90% of our food. Being the most efficient pollinators amongst insects, bees allow us to enjoy a great variety of fruits, vegetables, berries and many other plants that would all disappear if the bees were to go extinct. The effect of this would be far too great to imagine and our planet would look very different to what it does now.

Since 2006 US has lost 40% of its commercial honeybees, while in the UK the situation is even more drastic – their population of honeybees has decreased by 45% since 2010; beekeepers around Europe have been reporting unusual weakening and mortality in their bee colonies since 1998. So why are we blaming human activity for this? The answer is quite predictable – pesticides.

Many studies suggested that use of neonicotinoids (neuro-active insecticides meant to keep away pests) poses a threat to honeybee colonies. Based on an analysis of more than 1500 studies, European Union has decided to ban three main neonicotinoids earlier this year.

It’s time to talk about the birds and… the robots?

While protective measures are being taken, some scientists are preparing for the worst-case scenario and are developing new ways to pollinate plants that don’t require the hands on approach that some Chinese farms currently employ.

A team from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has created a drone called DelFly Nimble that replicates the wing motions of fruit flies and will be able to help the bees do their job (or, worst come to worst, replace them).

Image credit: DelFly Project

The wing motion is the large part of what makes these drones unique. The robot bees can hover on the spot, flip 360 degrees and fly in any direction – all courtesy of fruit fly’s evasive techniques.  This wing motion is also much more efficient than the more traditional helicopter-style blades, which allows the robot bees to stay airborne for longer. And with addition of spatial sensors they will be able to avoid obstacles and each other, much like their real life inspirations.

Currently, the drones are quite big – DelFly Nimbles have a 33cm wingspan – and are only able to fly for about 6 minutes, which allows them to cover the distance of 1 km (or 0.6 miles) on a single charge. However, Matej Karásek, a researcher working on the project, says that the goal is to get the drone to be as small as the real honeybees.

DelFly Project aren’t the first to attempt to create a robot bee. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute are developing RoboBees, that could not only pollinate crops, but also assist in environmental monitoring and search-and-rescue operations. RoboBees are much smaller than their Dutch counterparts, being roughly half the size of a paper clip, but they don’t have batteries, instead relying on an external power source, and are currently unable to fit even the smallest microchip, which means that the robots aren’t able to make decisions on their own. The ultimate goal of the project is to find a way to make RoboBees wireless and allow them to respond to the environment and act as a single unit.

Image credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Another interesting approach to creating robot bees comes from Japan. A team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology engineered their version of a device using a $100 drone, horsehair and sticky ion gel. The idea is very simple – the drone flies into a flower, the pollen from this flower gets stuck to the ion gel and horsehair and then the drone shakes it off at the next flower. This is certainly a project in an early stage of development, but hopefully one that will become a success.

Image credit: Eijiro Miyako

As you can see, there isn’t a perfect robot bee out there just yet, but these projects are definitely showing a lot of promise and we wouldn’t be surprised to see tiny artificial bees in the near future.

Do you think robot bees are the way to save us all from sure extinction or should we focus on saving the real bees instead? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!


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