How Robo-Bees Could Save America’s Crops

Tiny robotic pollinators could save crops that rely on bees.

Something is killing off up to half of America’s bees–terrible news for bees and the vegetation that depends on them for pollination. Fewer bees not only means less honey, it means less food. Researchers at Harvard are working on a partial solution — tiny drones the size of bees (not to be confused with drone bees, the mostly useless males of a bee colony).

The drones are flying robots designed to be small enough to pollinate a flower (they weigh just 80 milligrams). They are also designed to hover, giving them plenty of time to transfer pollen. Their wings mimic those of a fly, flapping when pulled by a special ceramic that contracts when stimulated by electricity. This enables the robo-bees to flap 100 times a second–fast enough to float in the air, as a regular bee would.

The robo-bees aren’t ready for prime time yet. Because they’re so tiny, they can’t fit a battery pack for power. The bees will also need some sort of computer so they can guide themselves in flight. Right now, there’s no onboard guidance mechanism–again, they just don’t have the real estate.

Still: robot bees! Robot bees! That’s pretty great.