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New RoboBees show that the future of robotics is very, very small

Insect-inspired robots appear to have valuable, real-world applications. (Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory)

Earlier this summer, President Obama worried about the disappearing honeybee population and what it means for the nation’s food supplies. In a presidential memorandum, he announced plans for the creation of a “Pollinator Health Task Force” to help save the honeybee. According to Obama, this was a $15 billion problem in search of an immediate answer.

Well, not to worry, amazing robotic bees the size of pennies might one day pollinate crops, ending all concerns about Colony Collapse Disorder within the next 15-20 years. At Harvard, researchers led by Robert Wood are developing RoboBees — a completely mechanical flying device loaded up with sensors and batteries that would fly from flower to flower, picking up and then depositing pollen the way a real honeybee would. Once it’s proven that these RoboBees can maneuver and carry their pollen payloads for long distances, you could theoretically replace a colony of honeybees with a swarm of robotic bees.

While it may be too early now to start talking about these RoboBees as the solution to Colony Collapse Disorder, it’s exciting to consider how much we can learn from nature to reverse-engineer tiny robots that look and function like their real-world counterparts. In a National Geographic video, for example, Harvard’s Robert Wood showcased examples of robotic flies, robotic millipedes that crawl over toys and robotic cockroaches that scurry across the floor.

What’s making all this possible is a lot of technological innovation that borrows from many other fields of cutting-edge research. Smart sensors are needed to detect the flowers, the same way a bee’s antennae and eyes would. Wireless communication devices are needed for the colony of bees to communicate with each other in the field. Small, extremely portable power sources are needed to power these bees for long periods of time. And highly advanced engineering techniques are needed to stabilize these bees in mid-flight.

There are plenty of uses for these small, bio-inspired robots that go beyond crop pollination. When deployed as part of a robotic swarm, these tiny robots might be used as part of search and rescue missions in the aftermath of a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane. They could be used to explore dangerous natural environments where humans can’t go, or used as part of high-resolution weather and climate mapping initiatives. They could be used to monitor traffic patterns from a distance or to report back on oil pipelines that have been deployed through uninhabited zones.

Of course, there’s a downside to tiny robots being deployed all over the globe. Consider, for example, how they might be deployed in warfare. The U.S. Department of Defense has already started to investigate the prospect of sending tiny buzzing fleets of “robo bugs” — including dragonflies and spiders — to spy on the enemy. These micro aerial vehicles would function much like unmanned drones today — but would be virtually undetectable.

Privacy, too, would be a huge concern. Inevitably, people will begin using these micro-robots to spy on celebrities (or their next-door neighbors). Can’t get close enough with a telescopic lens? Just send a robot the size of a fly to become a literal “fly on the wall.”

If you think about it, innovations such as the RoboBee are actually a mental breakthrough as much as a technological breakthrough. Ever since Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) — generally credited with giving the world the word “robot” in the 1920s — we’ve been used to thinking about future robots as being vaguely the same size and shape as humans, or as hulking, unthinking items on the assembly lines of factories. We are only beginning to realize that thousands of very tiny robots the size of a penny might accomplish more than a few androids amongst us. All of nature — not just humans — could one day have their robotic counterparts. That’s a staggering idea.

So where do we go from here? Some have suggested that the future of robotics is robots building other robots, with each new iteration of robots getting smaller and smaller, until we reach the scale of nanobots doing amazingly sophisticated tasks. That in itself is a pretty exciting technological concept, but it comes laden with all kinds of warnings about what these robots mean for concerns like privacy and ethics. At some point in the near future, it seems like we will need to take something like Isaac Asimov’s rules for robots written nearly 70 years ago and codify them in a way that’s relevant and timely for a complex technological society in which the robots just keep getting smaller and smaller.