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October 29, 2012

RoboBees: Design Poses Intriguing Engineering, Computer Science Challenges

These tiny, flying 'bots' could one day help with search and rescue, weather mapping

It started with a TV show, "Silence of the Bees," about honeybee populations in steep decline. At Harvard University, electrical engineers Rob Wood and Gu-Yeon Wei, and computer scientist Radhika Nagpal saw a challenge. And, so began the creation of the "RoboBee," a miniature flying robot, inspired by the biology of a bee and the insect's hive behavior.

"Nothing is off the shelf. We are developing all the physical and electronic components from scratch, and working out issues, such as how they communicate with each other," explains Wood. "We are also coordinating all the algorithms, so that the members of the RoboBee colony can work together."

"This set up is where we do all the flight tests," says Wood, as he shows a Science Nation producer around his lab. In one corner, researchers at a white board are drawing small bee designs and discussing proportions. In another area, a prototype RoboBee, tethered to a power source, is about to takeoff.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and one of the agency's programs called Expeditions in Computing, Wood put together a diverse team of collaborators to get the RoboBee project off the ground.

"A key here was to get everyone, all with great ideas about different aspects of the problem, lined up to work together. That made it possible for this team to attack an enormous challenge," says Ken Whang, program director for the division of information and intelligent systems within the NSF's Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering.

"3-2-1. Go!" The tethered RoboBee prototype lifts off the ground, if only for a second, veers right, and lands. High-speed cameras track the short flight. "Expeditions in Computing is looking for new architectures for computing--new ways of thinking about different important problems in computer science," says Wood, as he nods at the successful test flight.

One challenge is to design a small exoskeleton to house the bee's wings, motors, brain and electronics. Wood's team developed a folding assembly. "The idea is inspired, in a lot of ways, by a children's pop-up book. We can take a variety of different materials and layer them up," explains Wood.

Wei heads up a team developing the RoboBee's intricate, multitasking, computer chip brain. "We have different regions on the chip responsible for different things. We also have an electronic nervous system within the RoboBee brain that tells the bee to flap its wings," says Wei.

Power is another issue. If the fuel source is too heavy, the bee can't fly. "We have a collaborator that's making micro fuel cells that should be much better than the batteries," says Wood.

"There's so much that goes into recreating what real bees just do naturally," adds Wei.

"Even after all that, a single bee or RoboBee is tiny, compared to the world in which it needs to operate," notes Nagpal. She develops algorithms for distributed and multi-robot systems.

"Honeybees live in colonies of thousands, and, through amazing cooperation, achieve efficiency far beyond the sum of individuals. Bees do a number of things to increase efficiency, from sharing information within the hive to continually adapting their division of labor. All of this allows them to solve the very complex task of survival in an ever changing environment. What we need to learn is how to utilize those same principles, such as collective search and collective decision-making, but turn them into algorithms that can be used to solve new problems posed by human needs," explains Nagpal.

Ultimately, Wood, Wei and Nagpal hope to build a colony in which the RoboBees interact, using their hive as a refueling station. The researchers say RoboBees have the potential to be useful in a number of ways, including search and rescue missions, traffic monitoring, and weather mapping.

The research in this episode was funded by NSF through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Ann Kellan, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.