Oct. 29 - Researchers from Harvard University say the tiny robotic bees they unveiled last year should be ready for work in the real world by 2023. Called RoboBees, the miniature drones are being developed by Harvard's School of Engineering and Wyss Institute, to assist in crop pollination and search and rescue. Ben Gruber reports.
RoboBee is the smallest flying robot ever built. It's the size of a postage stamp and weighs about as much as a small snowflake. Its wings, which beat 120 times per second, are thinner than human hair. Power and flight control commands are transmitted from a computer to the RoboBee via a tether. But Mike Smith from Harvard University's Microrobotics Lab, hopes to design an autonomous version - a RoboBee that can fly on its own, even though the technology needed does not yet exist. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MIKE SMITH, RESEARCH ENGINEER, HARVARD'S MICROROBOTICS LAB, SAYING: "We have still yet to bring on-board sensing, some computational intelligence, a brain if you will, and then one of the big ones of course is power. And so these are some of the challenges that we are looking downstream at." Smith says it will take 10 years before the technology has been miniaturized to the scale needed to make free-flying RoboBees functional. But he says the researchers are making strides in other areas, such as mass production. The engineers can now print and assemble hundreds of RoboBees at the same time by applying the same pop-up design principles as those used in a child's story book. The researchers print plates that can be aligned and popped into place to form a completed robot. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MIKE SMITH, RESEARCH ENGINEER, HARVARD'S MICROROBOTICS LAB, SAYING: "And the idea is that on the RoboBee we have 137 of these linkages. And so as you separate these plates one from the other, these linkages, just like a child's pop-up book force this RoboBee into position." And once in position, Smith sees a day when teams of RoboBees could be deployed to replicate the behaviour of their biological cousins. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MIKE SMITH, RESEARCH ENGINEER, HARVARD'S MICROROBOTICS LAB, SAYING: "And I think the general idea here is to mimic the hive behaviour that you might see in bees. So that any one bee might know a little about his surroundings, perhaps what is right in the general area, but you would use kind of a colony mentality to pass the word if you will. You can envision perhaps a RoboBee that has found something maybe dropping down and expending the rest of its battery acting like a beacon or perhaps going back the hive and passing back and forth the information through more of a centralized intelligence." Intelligence that could be used in search and rescue missions, or military surveillance. Smith says RoboBee swarms could even be deployed to pollinate crops and flowers, a futuristic vision of technology inspired by nature.