Harvard's robotic bees generate high-tech buzz

National Science Foundation RoboBee project could lead to tiny smart sensors, low-power breakthroughs, better understanding of the bee world

Harvard's RoboBee
Harvard researchers recently got a $10 million grant to create a colony of flying robotic bees, or RoboBees to among other things, spur innovation in ultra-low-power computing and electronic "smart" sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines. 

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The 5-year, National Science Foundation-funded RoboBee project could lead to a better understanding of how to artificially mimic the unique collective behavior and intelligence of a bee colony; foster novel methods for designing and building an electronic surrogate nervous system able to deftly sense and adapt to changing environments; and advance work on the construction of small-scale flying mechanical devices, according to the Harvard RoboBee Web site. 

The RoboBee scientists will create robotic bees that fly autonomously and coordinate activities amongst themselves and the hive, much like real bees.  They anticipate the devices will open up a wide range of discoveries and practical innovations, advancing fields ranging from entomology and developmental biology to amorphous computing and electrical engineering, the researchers stated. 

The Harvard reseachers will build upon previous microrobotic work done by the university that lead to the creation of a life-sized robotic fly in 2007. The bees will be made up of a variety of technologies including UV and optical sensors as well as pollination and docking capabilities, the researchers stated.   In addition, achieving autonomous flight will require compact high-energy power sources and associated electronics, integrated seamlessly into the 'body' of the machine, researchers stated. 

The research team aims to drive research in compact high-energy power sources, ultra-low-power computing, and the design of distributed algorithms for multi-agent systems. Furthermore, the RoboBees created will provide unique insights into how Mother Nature conjures such elegant solutions to solve complex problems. 

The researchers cite pollination as one of those challenges. Bees coordinate to interact with complex natural systems by using a diversity of sensors, a hierarchy of task delegation, unique communication, and an effective flapping-wing propulsion system, researchers stated. 

Beyond pollination and assisted agriculture, coordinated robotic insects could have help rescue workers for search and rescue and hazardous environment exploration applications. High fidelity environmental monitoring, traffic monitoring, and mobile sensor networks are just a few examples of the future impact of coordinated RoboBees, researchers stated. 

Apparently though the RoboBees will lack one thing regular bees are known for, a stinger. 

The RoboBee research is just one of three NSF-supported Expeditions in Computing Energy projects warded this year.  The others included efficient computers designed for custom applications and new tools to make air travel safer and healthcare interventions more effective. 

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