Elena Scotti/FUSION

Everyone! Please, do not worry about the critically endangered bees. Scientists have a plan for replacing them: robot bees. Or as they would like to be known, 'Robo Bees'. Which is great and reassuring news, because bee hotels are probably not going to keep the au naturale bees from dying out. Let's hope robot bees truly are the way to a wonderful, perfectly safe, well-pollinated future.

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A team at Harvard's Wyss Institute have been hard at work on their (completely innocent) plans to develop "a colony of artificial insects." Behold the flight of the robot bumble bee, which the scientists have dubbed "Autonomous Flying Microrobots":

We have to be honest, these "robo bees" don't really look at all like our fluffy earth bees, even if you squint. The team has outlined the list of challenges in creating a convincing artificial bee, including developing "artificial muscles, bio-inspired sensors, compact power storage, ultra low power computing, and programming methods," but make no mention of how to make the electronic insects look lifelike. As this is only an initial prototype, you can have a pass on the lack of convincing appearances, scientists.

The team details its hopes of eventually producing enough robo bees to "coordinate the behavior of many independent robots so they act as an effective unit," which sounds terrific, especially once you consider the potential applications for this bee army as listed by the institute (emphasis ours):

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  • Crop pollination
  • Search and rescue missions, particularly after natural disasters
  • Surveillance
  • High-resolution weather and climate mapping
  • Traffic monitoring
  • Environmental monitoring

This seems like a lot of work to make robo bees into drone actors of the surveillance state when you could just attach really tiny cameras to living bees instead and then command them in some way. I'm no scientist, but that seems feasible.

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Except that bees are dying! They don't have time to be spies.

The creators of the robo bees assure us that they aim to help alleviate colony collapse disorder with their research and development of mecha-bees. "We do not see robotic pollination as a wise or viable long-term solution to Colony Collapse Disorder," they write, saying a better solution would be to end whatever is killing fleshy Earth bees. After all, producing enough robo bees to meaningfully aid in crop pollination is "at least 20 years away."

The research unit at Wyss had previously been responsible for the "kilobot", which should surely have been named literally anything else. The Kilobot was "designed to make tests of collective algorithms on hundreds or thousands of robots accessible to robotics researchers," which is a polite way of saying "tiny robot swarm." You can buy your very own pack of ten kil-o-bots to use for whatever definitely peaceful purposes you want right here.

The Robo Bees are as yet unavailable for purchase.

Elmo is a writer with Real Future.