Robotics engineers are buzzing about a machine with potentially transformative implications for agriculture, surveillance, and mapping: the "robobee." Researchers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences plan to have the mechanized critters flapping though the air autonomously within the next three years, according to NPR. And if coaxing the machines into flight isn't enough of a challenge, the real innovation lies in getting the machines to mimic the collaborative behavior of a colony.
Each robobee will be equipped with sensors and cameras, instead of antennae and eyes, that will allow them to do everything from pollinating a field of crops to searching for survivors after a natural disaster. Communication among a swarm of bees—decentralized and leaderless—is a particularly compelling model for an automated system, since the insects are able to efficiently adapt to changes in their environment without receiving orders from one authority. If successful, the project promises an important step forward for designing and coordinating systems of machines.
Manufacturing the bees has required completely rethinking materials and process. Last week, the team announced a new method of mass production that takes a page from pop-up books. Laser cut sheets of fibers expand with one smooth movement into the shape of a bee.