Ro­botic Bees

Learn­ing from na­ture

Business Spotlight - - CONTENTS -

In­ten­sive mod­ern farm­ing meth­ods and the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of global cli­mate change are said to have put the fu­ture of the com­mon bee un­der threat as never be­fore. But at the Delft Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in the Nether­lands, a group of sci­en­tists work­ing on long-term so­lu­tions to some of the world’s thorni­est prob­lems have de­vel­oped a so­lu­tion that could have come straight from a sci-fi novel: ro­botic bees.

By re­pro­duc­ing some of the com­plex wing-mo­tion pat­terns and aero­dy­nam­ics of fruit flies, in par­tic­u­lar, re­searchers at the univer­sity’s newly opened Robo­house, a hub of Dutch ex­per­tise, be­lieve they will be able to cre­ate mil­lions of bee­like drones to pol­li­nate plants when the real-life in­sects have died away.

The wings of the ro­botic Delfly beat 17 times per sec­ond, to gen­er­ate the lift needed to stay air­borne and con­trol its flight through small ad­just­ments in their wing mo­tion. The re­searchers asked why a fly was so dif­fi­cult to swat and looked to re­pro­duce the in­sect’s eva­sive abil­i­ties. The robo-bees can hover on the spot, fly in any di­rec­tion and even flip 360 de­grees around pitch or roll axes. Be­cause the ro­bots’ wings are con­structed from a light­weight film made of My­lar, the ma­te­rial used in space blan­kets, it is safe for peo­ple to work around them.

The new drones, which can travel at up to 25 kilo­me­tres an hour, are also more ef­fi­cient in their flight than those with he­li­copter-style blades, mean­ing their bat­ter­ies can last longer. They can be fit­ted with spa­tial sen­sors so that they au­tonomously fly from plant to plant, avoid­ing each other and other ob­sta­cles as they go.

Pre­vi­ous at­tempts to per­fect the tech­nol­ogy at Har­vard and else­where have pro­duced use­ful mod­els, but have proven to be ei­ther too frag­ile or un­able to nav­i­gate around each other.

“The use we see for this is pol­li­na­tion in green­houses,” says Matěj Karásek, a re­searcher work­ing on the project. “The bee is un­der threat due to our farm­ing meth­ods and we don’t know what their fu­ture will be. This is one so­lu­tion.

“We are not try­ing to copy flies and bees, but we are try­ing to learn from them,” Karásek adds. “Physics lim­its how small nor­mal drones can be.”

The ro­botic in­sect has a 33-cen­time­tre wing­span and weighs 29 grams, mak­ing it 55 times the size of a fruit fly. It can also fly for only six min­utes, or one kilo­me­tre, on its cur­rent bat­tery. But the plan, the univer­sity says, is to re­duce the size to that of the in­sects they are try­ing to em­u­late as they de­velop the ro­bot.

The Nether­lands is one of the world’s largest ex­porters of agri­cul­tural and food prod­ucts in the world. Bees are re­spon­si­ble for pol­li­nat­ing 80 per cent of the ed­i­ble crops grown in the coun­try.

Yet of the 360 dif­fer­ent species of bee in the Nether­lands, about half are threat­ened. Glob­ally, the dra­mat­i­cally fall­ing num­bers of pol­li­na­tors in re­cent years has been blamed, in part, on the wide­spread use of pes­ti­cides. It has re­cently been claimed that one pop­u­lar pes­ti­cide could wipe out com­mon bum­ble­bee pop­u­la­tions by pre­vent­ing the for­ma­tion of new colonies.

The chem­i­cal thi­amethoxam is said to dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the num­ber of eggs pro­duced by queen bum­ble­bees. Pre­dic­tions based on a math­e­mat­i­cal model have sug­gested that this could re­sult in the to­tal col­lapse of lo­cal pop­u­la­tions of wild bees. In April, the EU an­nounced a ban would come in by the end of 2018, re­strict­ing the use of this chem­i­cal to closed green­houses.

Karásek told The Guardian: “I think within five to ten years we will have the tech­nol­ogy to make the drones much smaller and we could see them put to use in green­houses.”

The de­vel­op­ers are work­ing to find a com­mer­cial part­ner for the project. Delft Univer­sity’s Robo­house, which opened in Septem­ber of 2018, has been es­tab­lished to bring the coun­try’s bright­est en­gi­neer­ing minds to­gether with the pri­vate sec­tor.

“We are not try­ing to copy flies and bees, but we are try­ing to learn from them”

Bee at work: sci­en­tists are learn­ing from na­ture

Ro­botic bee: the Delfly in ac­tion

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