Grossmann: Robotic Bees and Rumors of Other Robotic Insects

17 October 2013

Scientists at Harvard are continuing to work on the development of the first robotic bee.  The goal is a robot that can pollinate flowers and crops just like a honeybee.  However, the goal is far away. [1]

Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” is using titanium and plastic to fashion a robot that duplicates the functions, if not the appearance, of the familiar honeybee.  The robo-bee pops up, complete with wings, from a quarter-sized metal disk.  One day, it is hoped, these “bees” will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and locate sources of honey. [2]

In the 1950’s, futurists predicted that we would all be operating flying automobiles by 1970.  Similarly, the prediction of working robotic honeybees may be an optimistic fantasy.  But if the goal is never reached, it will be for no lack of effort on the part of the Harvard scientists.  But there are many hurdles, challenges, and obstacles.

To hear some tell it, a robotic bee is perfected and almost poised to replace its natural counterpart in a brave new world full of disconcerting, mechanical replicas of the familiar and comfortable wildlife around us.  However, that future is definitely . . . in the future.

In order to create a robot that does what a honeybee does, the ‘bot must be the same size as a honeybee.  But that same, small size is the source of a number of problems.  Currently, no lightweight, portable power source exists with both the small size and large capacity needed by the robobee.  But even with a suitable power source, the ‘bot must also be equipped with a portable guidance system.  And there is no guidance system small enough, and lightweight enough, to do the job. [3]

After five years of work, researchers are only now figuring out how to guide the robobee in flight.  Until recently, these robots would just take off, fly in any direction, and . . . crash.  However, with the latest guidance breakthrough, the robobee can now be made “to pitch and roll in a predetermined direction.”  Progress has and will be made through a series of small advances over a long period of time.  So, the rumored release of a swarm of robotic bees to replace our honeybees is far, far away.  [4]

With robotic insects, flight itself is the biggest challenge.  While bird-sized flying drones are being perfected with relative success, flying insect ‘bots present a special aerodynamic problem.  It’s the size.  If you shrink a bird-sized drone down to the size of an insect — it won’t fly.  A roboticist at the University of California at Berkeley, Ronald Fearing, told the Washington Post that “the rules of aerodynamics change” with an object as small as an insect. [5] Unlike bird wings, insect-sized wings must move with amazing precision.  Replicating these precise wing movements is a formidable engineering challenge.  In fact, scientists only recently came to understand how insects fly at all.  Compounding the problems, these precision wing movements require yet larger supplies of portable power. [6]

So, the rumors that robobee will be shoving honeybees out of the way any day now — are only rumors.  Sort of like the persistent rumors suggesting that the U.S. Government secretly developed and used insect drones decades ago.  Given the substantial problems with the current development of controllable, insect-sized flying robots, it’s fair to assume that a robotic insect would have been impossible as far back as the 1970’s.  However, our assumption would be wrong.  These rumors are true.

The CIA’s simple dragonfly snooper was operational in the 1970’s.  The relatively unsophisticated “insectothopter” was the product of the CIA’s Office of Research and Development and rolled off the assembly line almost 40 years ago.  Its tiny gasoline engine was used to make its four wings flap.  However, the insectothopter was scraped because of its inability to fly in a crosswind.  So, with the shelving of the insectothopter, the development of robotic insects ended — only reappearing with the modern resurgence of robotic research.  Or did the U.S. Government secretly continue to develop insect drones?  Again, there are rumors. [7]

Is it possible that some agency has developed a secret, advanced version of the insectothopter?  Sources at the CIA have declined to comment.  When questioned about the possibility of the secret development of flying drone insects, an “expert in unmanned aerial vehicles,” retired Colonel Tom Ehrhard, simply said, “America can be pretty sneaky.”  [8]

On that less than comforting note, we can reconsider another rumor — the rumor of the dragonfly robots.  At recent political events in Washington D.C. and New York, several persons have reported sighting something that they described as a cross between a slightly oversized dragonfly and a miniature helicopter.  Perhaps, these witnesses have mistaken real insects for robots . . . or perhaps not. [9]

There are also rumors about a robotic fly.   But, first, why would anyone want to develop a robotic fly?  Bees are more than useful.  They are also one of the more “popular” insects.  No one can completely dislike a bug that produces honey.  But the fly?  It’s one of the most hated insects of all time.  But the robofly mystery may be more a question of nomenclature.  In other words, a robot’s name may depend, not on how it’s built or what it looks like, as much as what it does.

The only thing mysterious about robofly is the confusion caused by giving the same robotic insect two different names.  Robofly is the same machine as robobee.  [10]

So, what’s with the two names?  Although scientists were attempting to create a flying insect sized ‘bot that would do what a bee does, they actually used the fly as the basis for the design of the wings and flight movement. [11] But, again, what’s with the two names?  When is it called a bee, and when is it called a fly?

Again, the choice of name may depend on what the ‘bot does.  Look at it this way. Robobee is being developed to pollinate crops – a wholesome and useful activity.  The same robot, under the name robofly is being developed as a spy drone — to secretly watch and, perhaps, eavesdrop on some unsuspecting victims.  Surveillance is useful but, today, has developed an ugly reputation.  In other words, when a flying drone spies on “the enemy,” it’s  good.  When it spies on your neighbor, it’s a subject for public debate.  When it spies on you . . . it’s outright evil.

So, this robot is a cheerful “bee” when it’s pollinating.  But, when the same robot starts looking over your shoulder, it’s an unpleasant “fly.”  Just imagine what they would have called this same ‘bot if it had been adapted, not just to listen, but to attack?

They called it Robo-Mosquito.  Well, at least, that was the rumor.

Rumors spread that a new insect drone had been developed called the robo-mosquito.  The proof?  There were pictures.  Pictures of a ‘bot that looked a lot like robobee/fly except it had a sharp syringe-like protuberance, apparently, intended to suck something out of, or inject something into, a victim.  Then, another photo surfaced.  But the robo-mosquito in the new photo looked a bit more like a metallic version of an actual mosquito.  [12]

In fact, the first photo turned out to be robobee.  The photo was slightly retouched to add a syringe-like protuberance.  The second photo was of an actual mosquito retouched, with more than a little artistry, to create the effect of a metallic, mechanical-looking mosquito.  [13]

So, robo-mosquito was only a rumor that turned out to be a hoax.  But, again, the name seemed to follow the function.  At least one photo showed a ‘bot that looked little different than robobee.  So why the new name — mosquito — one of the most hated insects in history?  Perhaps because of what the drone was supposed to do: inject unsuspecting victims with deadly poison.  So, if the robotic insect is designed to do anything bad —  from the unfriendly, like eavesdropping, to the evil and deadly, like injecting poison, it’ll be named after an unfriendly, evil or deadly insect.  Ironically, robo-mosquito’s evil function, injecting unsuspecting victims with poison, has little to do with what a mosquito actually does, but a lot to do with what the “friendly” honeybee does when it stings.

All of these insect-inspired robots are being developed to perform a variety of practical functions.  However, as development continues, our insect robots seem to be gaining the names, if not the functions, of more and more unpopular and unwelcome insect pests.  Why can’t we do something aesthetically pleasing with robots instead of modeling them after ugly insects?  Well, all insects aren’t ugly, and neither are all insect-inspired robots.

A robot is a machine that “does work.”  By that definition, ChouChou the robotic butterfly is not really a robot but, rather, an animatronic device.  That is, a machine that is designed to look and move like a animal.  ChouChou behaves, and even flies, like a butterfly.  The manufacturers, aware of the too- short lifespan of these beautiful insects, promotes ChouChou as the butterfly that lives forever.  But don’t think that no one else is working on robotic butter-bots. [14]

At Johns Hopkins Department of Mechanical Engineering, the research of a student, Tiras Lin, is aimed at mimicking the movements of the Painted Lady Butterfly. [15] And Japanese researchers have developed the “ornithopter” — a flying ‘bot that mimics the flight pattern of a swallowtail butterfly. [16] The swallowtail is unique among butterflies because it remains airborne and propels itself forward only by flapping its wings.  So, is that unusual?

Well, in flight, the movement of the typical insect’s wings is extremely complex and difficult to duplicate.  In contrast, the swallowtail flapping is just that.  There’s nothing subtle or complex about it.  Not only could imitating this movement in a robot prove a much simpler engineering task, but the swallow tail may open the door (or rather the sky) to aircraft with moving wings — a thing most clearly imagined by Leonardo da Vinci’s in his drawings and experiments of five centuries ago.  [17]


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