Science Is Giving Bee-Like Robots Bee-Like Brains

The word "drone" comes, in part, from bees, so it's really only fitting that researchers are developing aerial drones that are the size of bees. To make them so small, researchers "at Harvard":http://robobees.seas.harvard.edu/ have had to figure out...

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Oct 26 2012, 7:20pm

The word “drone” comes, in part, from bees, so it’s really only fitting that researchers are developing aerial drones that are the size of bees. To make them so small, researchers at Harvard have had to figure out how to design a small exoskeleton that can house the bee’s tiny wings, motors, brain and electronics. To standardize the design, called “Monobee,” they developed a new laser-cut folding assembly, inspired, in many ways, by origami, or a children’s pop-up book, a process they imagine could be used for building, say, tiny medical instruments. Power is another issue. If the fuel source is too heavy, the bee can’t take off: each one is designed to weigh 1/60th the mass of an American quarter.

Things will only get more interesting once the things actually have bee brains. The Harvard team is working on one brain, as are researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex in the U.K., who are designing something called “Green Brain,” a software model that mimics how a bee sees and smells. Once the project is complete, in 2015, the scientists say that a robotic bee could be built that actually behaves like a real bee, rather than simply flying on a pre-programmed path and carrying out instructions. That kind of “brain” could of course be used for military surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather mapping, in drones of any size, but also, on a small enough drone, prove useful for robots that could help replenish actual bee colonies, or for rescuing or locating people. “A human rescuer isn’t specifying step by step how to find people,” said James Marshall, a computer scientist at the University of Sheffield. “With an AI robot you don’t have to specify how to solve a problem.”

At the unmanned aerial systems hanger at Israeli Aerospace Industries last week, I had the chance to see up close another vision of this drone future – a drone in the size and shape of a dragonfly. Its wing flap was remarkably quiet, its video camera surprisingly powerful, and its energy source strong enough to allow flight times of up to 45 minutes. One challenge is wind — outdoor use can be limited. But these things won’t be needed outside. They’ll be useful inside, you know, for those times when James Bond needs to locate the bad guys. We’re not there just yet. But the engineer I met at IAI told us that his dragonfly was already two years old. “I wish I could show you our newer stuff.”