Flight of the Robo-bee

Credit: Fractality

by James MacLachlan

Whether you love them or hate them, you can’t deny that bees do a lot more for humanity than we realise. Sure, these flying insects produce honey, which a great number of the human and animal population (not just Winnie-the-Pooh) enjoy consuming, but their most important role is their position as commercial cross-pollinators.

The bees collect pollen on their legs as they search plants for nectar. The pollen on their legs gets distributed to other flowers throughout the bee’s journey, pollenating these flowers which results in the production of food (it’s estimated that one third of food humans eat and three quarters of global crop species is directly associated with bees) and allows the flower to reproduce – and more flowers not only means the world looks prettier, it means more oxygen too.

It’s common knowledge that, due to deforestation, climate change, and the use of pesticides, the bee population is in decline, and we can agree that bees directly affect the food we eat and the air we breathe – so a decline in the former will one day lead to a decline in the latter. Something needs to bee done. Sorry about that. I’ll just…

Enter the robo-bee! Robotic ‘bee drones’, a concept that bears a striking familiarity to something in an episode of Black Mirror, could be making their way into the real world thanks to Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

The bee drone is a minute drone that is small enough not to damage the plant whilst it collects the pollen on sticky horse hairs attached to its underside. The drone is four centimetres wide and weighs only 15 grams! Then, like a bee would, it carries the pollen to another plant which fertilises it. One major setback is that, for the time being, the drones must be controlled manually, but with constant experimentation with Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Artificial Intelligence, the drones may one day become autonomous and seek out pollen on their own.

The project’s lead scientist, Eijiro Miyako, says the team is focusing their efforts on developing the technology to make the drones autonomous in the future. Advanced GPS, high-resolution cameras and sensors, and artificial intelligence are all necessary to allow the drones to ‘think’ for themselves.

“We hope this will help to counter the problem of bee declines,” says Miyako. “But importantly, bees and drones should be used together.” This statement highlights the fact that the scientists are not creating a replacement for bees but simply a means to assist the bees in their tasks.

It is both amazing and worrying that technology has come this far. On the one hand, there’s the potential for aiding an entire species, with potential benefits for so much more in the years and decades to come. But, rather understandably on the other, there are worries that the bee drones will be a risk to the world by being hacked and used for the wrong purposes, much like in Black Mirror. Should we be sceptical about the drones? Should we embrace them? I’ll let you bee the judge of that. (I’ll stop now…)

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