A group of scientists at at the Wyss Institute, Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Northeastern University, is developing a miniature robotic bee which is able to mimic the behaviour of the endangered living creature.

Inspired by the biology of a bee and the insects' hive behaviour, they aim to push advances in miniature robotics by creating coordinated agile robotic insects.

The RoboBees would be capable of many different tasks including search and rescue (e.g., in the aftermath of a natural disaster) and hazardous environment exploration. But the application which is of most interest to the agricultural world is that of autonomously pollinating a field of crops.

So far, the team has recently demonstrated the first controlled flight of the microrobotic device using external power, sensing, and control. There are challenges in emulating bee-like robot activity including small-scale power storage, manufacturing, actuation (movement), sensing, control, and coordination in creating tiny robots like the RoboBee. A RoboBee measures about half the size of a paper clip, weighs less than one-tenth of a gram, and flies using “artificial muscles” comprised of materials that contract when a voltage is applied.

The RoboBee development is broadly divided into three main components: the Body, Brain, and Colony. Body development consists of constructing robotic insects able to fly under their own, compact and seamlessly integrated power source; brain development is concerned with “smart” sensors and control electronics that mimic the eyes and antennae of a bee, and can sense and respond dynamically to the environment; the Colony’s focus is about coordinating the behavior of many independent robots so they act as an effective unit.

So could these robotic insects one day take over the crop pollination role that real bees perform today? The scientists are emphatic that is not the purpose of their research and the robotic pollination is not seen as a wise or viable long-term solution to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). One of the potential applications of micro-robots might someday be to artificially pollinate crops but that is at least 20 years away.

Furthermore, even if robots were able to be used for pollination, it would only be as a stop-gap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators.

The team are emphatic that they are not using CCD to exploit the hole left by the death of bees. They said; "We do not condone policies or practices that endanger bees."

The basic research project is funded by the National Science Foundation and is being used as an educational project to at national engineering events.