Thursday, May 9, 2013

Robotic Insects for Pollination?

The other day a friend brought some new technology to my attention.  He sent me a link to an article in Truthdig, entitled, Here's What a 'Bee Drone' Will Look Like


I had to look into this, of course.

It was actually a very short piece.  It mentioned a coin sized robot with the ability to fly.  This robot was developed at Harvard.School of Engineering and Applied Science.  There was also a short (1:42) video attached to the piece.

There was one thing in particular within the piece that caught my eye.  It mentions that The Guardian mused that scientists were imagining pollination or even military surveillance being accomplished by these tiny robotic bees.

image from

This isn't a civil rights blog, so I'm not touching on the surveillance part.  I'll let your imaginations do the work for you.  Instead, I want to focus on the pollination part.

It scared the heck out of me.

Now, understand that I've found absolutely nothing that points to any of the scientists that created the device having this sort of mindset.  Indeed, they have the sort of refreshing, childlike excitement about the achievement that makes me adore them from afar.

After reading the story about these robotic insects that was printed in the Harvard Gazette, I realized that the Harvard project came from a yearning to combine what we know about biology with technology to create an extraordinarily efficient robot in small scale.  The team wanted to work with the natural order, rather than against it.

Indeed, the team views the robotic insects as similar to flies, rather than bees:
“Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only tiny brains,” notes co-author Sawyer B. Fuller, a postdoctoral researcher on Wood’s team who essentially studies how fruit flies cope with windy days. “Their capabilities exceed what we can do with our robot, so we would like to understand their biology better and apply it to our own work.” (source)
So, then, why was I so scared?

Well, technology can be beautiful... but it can also be dangerous.  Many times, it can be a way to place a bandage over a problem, rather than a way to heal it. 

The robotic insects themselves are spectacular, brilliant even. This project is a merger of science and engineering at its finest, and I hold the highest respect for everyone that made this a reality.

But they're not who I'm worried about.

Colony Collapse Disorder is at a record high - bees are dying at overwhelmingly high rates.  This needs to end, and fast. 

(Here comes the pollination fear I mentioned earlier.)

How many politicians will look at this beautiful achievement in robotics and say,

"Heck, let's just put some funds into making more of these to pollinate our fields?  
Then we won't have to worry about saving the bees!  
We have the answer right here!"

failing to recognize that their bandage solution won't solve anything?

I think the answer to that is far more than we want to believe would think this way. 

As a society, we like throwing technology at our problems.  We drive distances that we could easily walk.  We place children in front of televisions so that we can get work done without interruption.  We use gas or electric lawn mowers on tiny backyards.

We can easily ignore the plight of the bees and try to use robotic insects in their place.

Do the scientists and engineers that worked on this project think this way?  I highly doubt it.  In fact, I imagine that they'd be 100% against it... because they'd know better.

But since when does the average politician listen to scientists?  

It's because of politics that I look at a brilliant step forward in technology, and worry about the outcome.  It's because of bureaucracy that I look at something glorious and become unsettled.

It should never feel this way.

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