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.