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By Laurene Williams, HoneyColony

Researchers at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering may someday bypass the bee-death-pesticides conundrum with RoboBees, a bigger, better pollinator that subscribes to the laws of robotics.

Their invention of rel=”nofollow”>RoboBees puts technologists in a face-off against the organic movement – and the latter does not apply to food alone. It applies to life and what constitutes it, and how our ongoing engagement on this planet is becoming an increasingly intimate dance with technology.

Mass bee die-offs are clearly too messy. We don’t feel good about it or the fact that pesticides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup, continue to generate negative reports about toxicity levels and the poisoning of our soils from coast to coast.

Systemic pesticides such as neonicitinoids have crept into the food chain and onto our dinner plates, adding another toxic wallop that shows a correlation with rises in autism and other disorders. robobees

Meanwhile, we need a solution to Colony Collapse Disorder, which is affecting the honeybees that make our food supply go round.

The Brave New World of RoboBees

Nothing seems more robust than a robot, impervious to delicate atmospheric changes, inclement weather, mites, fungi, and viruses. But the inventors at Harvard University, who just might engineer our way out of the imperfect conditions we’ve created for Earth’s creatures, have been motivated to replicate nature’s insects for over a decade, long before mention of Colony Collapse Disorder made its way into mainstream media.

Inspired by the biology of the bee, their endeavors are about ingenuity and possibility. Harvard RoboBees — half the size of a paper clip – took their first flight in the summer of 2012 after years of trial and error. robobees

“Harnessing biology to solve real-world problems is what the Wyss Institute is all about,” says Wyss Founding Director Don Ingber, key collaborator with Harvard’s SEAS. “This work is a beautiful example of how bringing together scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to carry out research inspired by nature and focused on translation can lead to major technical breakthroughs.” robobees

As their efforts continue, applications multiply. robobees

With every compelling technology comes the responsibility to use it judiciously. Science can always be upheld as a means to create tools, achievements, and innovations that either complement or decimate nature. In this case, replacing bees outright could strike a quick match to extinguish the rich biodiversity in our backyards. robobees

According to the Harvard Gazette: robobees

“Applications of the RoboBees project could include distributed environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, or assistance with crop pollination, but the materials, fabrication techniques, and components that emerge along the way might prove to be even more significant. For example, the pop-up manufacturing process could enable a new class of complex medical devices. Harvard’s  rel=”nofollow”>Office of Technology Development, in collaboration with Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute, is already in the process of commercializing some of the underlying technologies.” robobees

While detractors of these micro-aerial vehicles call out the growing surveillance state that has unleashed drones, shredded privacy rights, and is using Facebook and Google as war chests for our personal data, the Wyss Institute clarifies their stance on honeybees and our food:

“One potential application of micro-robotic ‘insects’ (e.g., RoboBees) is they might someday be able to pollinate crops artificially. We do not, however, see robotic pollination as a wise or viable long-term solution to Colony Collapse Disorder. If robots were used for pollination — and we are at least 20 years away from that possibility — it would only be as a stopgap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators.” robobees

As social activists debate the pros and cons, RoboBees, along with the growing list of intrusive cyborg-friendly devices, (think Google Glass and nano-chips), seem to push us further into a funky Orwellian odyssey. Consumers, meanwhile, can continue to support local farmers and organic producers whose methods support healthy, non-robotic bee populations with non-genetically modified produce that lessen our toxic load.

Laurene Williams is the Senior Editor at HoneyColony.

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