The RoboBees Project and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

1Q  Why do you study bees?

A  The RoboBees project explores fundamental questions in materials science, fluid mechanics, controls, circuit design, manufacturing, and computer science. For us, bees are something of a metaphor. They are social insects; they interact with their environment and with each other in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. We look to bee colonies as inspiration to do something useful with a group of simple robots.  That means we have to understand a number of questions. How do they communicate? How do they share resources? How do they make decisions? The answers to these and other questions provide the starting point for this project. More abstractly, we see this project as a model for multi-disciplinary collaborations.  We are a team of experts from many fields—biology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science—and we believe that crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries facilitates new discovery. Again, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

2Q  What are some of the key results of the RoboBees project to date?

A  We recently demonstrated the first controlled flight of our microrobotic device using external power, sensing, and control.

We have also created a highly efficient manufacturing process for complex mechanisms—known as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)—that have small parts, ranging from a few micrometers to a centimeter. The assembly is accomplished in a manner similar to children’s pop-up books and origami, by folding multi-layer composite structures into linkage mechanisms that guide the assembly of the resulting device in one smooth motion. The technique can be used to create almost any kind of three-dimensional integrated electronics, from new medical devices to high-power switches.

In addition, we have developed methods for ultra-low-power integrated circuits to perform flight control and coordination. This is based on what are called “hardware accelerators”—custom circuits that perform a limited number of functions, but do so with unrivaled efficiency.

Lastly, we have explored tradeoffs in the design and programming for large groups of coordinated robots, asking: what are the best ways to produce “intelligent” behavior with limited computational power?

3Q  What are some of the challenges in emulating bee-like robot activity?

A  Small-scale power storage, manufacturing, actuation (movement), sensing, control, and coordination are key challenges in creating tiny robots like the RoboBee. All of these things must be re-thought since there are few, if any, “off-the-shelf” components available that satisfy the size, weight, and power constraints imposed by such small systems. 

4Q  Is it realistic to expect that robotic insects could one day take over the crop pollination role that real bees perform today? Is that a goal of the RoboBee project?

A  We do not see robotic pollination as a wise or viable long-term solution to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). One of the potential applications of micro-robots might someday be to artificially pollinate crops. However, we are at least 20 years away from that possibility. Furthermore, even if robots were able to be used for pollination, it would only be as a stop-gap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators.

5Q  What are the overall goals of the RoboBees project, and how is it supported?

A  This is a basic research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, aimed at exploring some fundamental questions in materials science, fluid mechanics, controls, circuit design, manufacturing, and computer science. There are, of course, multiple applications for a collection of small coordinated robots. Most are similar to applications for other autonomous robots such as search and rescue and hazardous environment exploration. Since there are so many new technologies that must be developed from scratch, there are significant technological payoffs from projects like this.  One specific example from the project is our pop-up fabrication technique that is now being used in the design of new medical devices for minimally-invasive surgery.  Another is a new software tool that aids processor designers in understanding and evaluating various design tradeoffs to implement hardware accelerators such as those commonly found in modern cell phone processors.

Another important goal of the RoboBees project is educational. We are very active in promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education by leveraging the tangible nature of our robotics projects. To date, we have used RoboBee prototypes and demonstrations to connect with and excite many thousands of young students and their parents at local and national engineering events.

6Q  Does the RoboBees project contribute to or in any way benefit from the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?

A  Absolutely not.  We do not condone policies or practices that endanger bees