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What is Biomimicry?

This video was created as part of the Cape Cod Regional STEM Network Teacher in Residence Program for the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History's Biomimicry exhibit. This was created as a Museum partnership with Cape Cod Community College's "Teacher in Residence" pilot project and the Cape Cod Community Media Center.

The following was written by Teresa Martin in her TechEyes: The Column. In addition to writing about technology, Teresa is the Executive Director of Lower Cape Community Access Television.

CapeEyes presents ... TechEyes: The Column

Buzz Goes the (Robo) Bee

"For us humans, no bees = no food. It really is that simple. Or is it?

Ah, that's just the kind of question technology labs love to explore! And so ... enter the robo-bee"


Robo-bees to the rescue?

I worry about the bees. Bees, you see, make food happen - and not just sweet and tasty honey, either!

Bees and their fellow pollinators zip, buzz, and flutter around the blossoms, moving pollen from one plant to the next, fertilizing seeds as they browse for their own lunch fixings. A happy side effect of this activity creates the cross-fertilization that helps plants thrive and grow into our own breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

All this buzzing also translates into dollars - our tiny flying friends impact the US economy to the tune of nearly $200 billion worth of crops a year, according to the USDA.

So whether you love food or love chasing dollars, you should be worrying about bees too ... because since 1990, bees have been dying at an alarming rate.

Whole colonies disappear, never to return. This disconcerting mortality touches the US and all corners of the globe. No bee seems safe, and no one really knows why.

Fingers point to a parasitic mite, to new diseases, to habitat loss, to climate change, to pesticide use or quite plausibly some combination of all the above creating a fatal stress on the bee population. In short, it is not a particularly good time to be a bee.

For us humans, no bees = no food. It really is that simple. Or is it? Ah, that's just the kind of question technology labs love to explore! And so ... enter the robo-bee.

The first robo-bee buzzed on the scene in April 2013 at Harvard's Microbotics Lab. The biotech research institute Wyss Institute has since taken these "autonomous flying microbots" to new levels. Last year it published research about the robot's new ability to perch during flight to save energy, mirroring the habits of butterflies and birds and yes, real bees.

The tiny robots use static electricity - you know, the "magic" that lets a rubbed balloon stick to your arm - to hang onto glass, wood, or leaves. The science of the birthday party parlor trick combines with inspiration from the world's flying creatures to take the Wyss robo-bee one step closer to pragmatic applications -- applications which the institute says could includes crop pollination and various surveillance activities.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, chemist Eijiro Miyako who hails from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) Nanomaterials Research Institute (NMRI) in Japan, said he has been pollinating lilies in the lab with his latest robo-bee. That's right - flowers with no biological bee involved.

Miyako's "bee" is actually a tiny tiny quadcopter - an itsy-bity drone with four miniature propellers. These ttiny drones sport horsehair and sticky-gel. It turns out this newly discovered sticky gooey gel doesn't dry out over time like most gels and also attracts dust and pollen.

The no-dry stick gel discovery happened by accident, like some of the best discoveries always do. Years ago a research project worked on creating gel for electrical conduction. The project ended and the leftovers got pushed to the back of a storage cabinet. During a lab move and cleaning, Miyako found the gel.

In sharing the story with Wired Magazine, he told of how he was surprised that the gel hadn't dried up and subsequent testing discovered it had the potential for - pollination. He added some horsehair and voila, the miniature quadcopters suddenly had the ability to gather a 2 mg pollen payload.

Right now the devices fly only with manual direction - so pollinating that orchard of apple trees wouldn't exactly be feasible - yet. However, research in autonomous robotic systems, liike the work at Wyss and at many other robotic research sites around the world, suggest it could just be a matter of time until a hive of robo-bees could be loosed on a field to pollinate on their own.

On one hand, all of this sounds so very fascinating: Making clever use of science and engineering and technology to mimic the way the natural world works. Intellectually I'm intrigued and want to know more!

The robo-bees look tiny and, well, almost darling in their press release outings. But the more I ponder all things bees, biological and robotic, I can't help but wonder if my focus might be misdirected.

Maybe I should be worrying about the humans instead.

Our response to losing bees seems to focus on building artificial bees as a replacement tool. I know there's a lot at stake and it certainly makes sense to develop solutions to prevent our food cycle from collapse - but is that best solution? The only solution?

Talking about pesticide use and climate and habitat change and the whole interaction of the natural ecosystem turns out to be a lot more politically loaded, a lot more complex, and a lot less sexy than marveling over clever robo-bees and hovering nano-drones.

After all, Robo-bees involve less finger-pointing, fewer players, and an easier solution than wholesale change in human behavior and global policies.

Yes, yes, I know some folks are working on the larger questions of the natural world - but let's be real. A video of a charmingly hovering robo-bee plays to our belief that we can out-build and out-smart everything and gets more buzz than a stack of academic papers about the impact of pesticide use.

Robo-bees sizzle.

As frequent readers know, I am endlessly fascinated by technology and the incredible human imagination - I love learning what makes a robo-bee buzz! But even more mysterious and complex, I think, is the technology that bumbles in on the wings of that inspiration for the robo-bee: the real bee.

The world has some 200,000 different species of animals around the world meeting the diverse pollinating needs for some 400,000 varieties of plants. You be that I'll keep cheering robo-bees, but as I do I'll also keep hoping that they don't blind us to the pretty cool integrated autonomous system running right in front of our eyes every day.

Teresa Martin
Cape Eyes
Eastham, MA 02642
Harvard University developing “RoboBees

Researchers at Harvard University are developing autonomous, miniature flying robots known as “RoboBees.” Are these robots the future of… bees? Legal and media analyst Lionel of Lionel Media tells RT’s Alex Mihailovich that if these RoboBees are given artificial intelligence and the ability to reproduce, the results could be quite terrifying.