Not too long ago a mysterious affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) began to wipe out honeybee hives. These bees are responsible for most commercial pollination in the U.S., and their loss provoked fears that agriculture might begin to suffer as well. In 2009 the three of us, along with colleagues at Harvard University and Northeastern University, began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual's behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees. We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.
Superficially, the task appears nearly impossible. Bees have been sculpted by millions of years of evolution into incredible flying machines. Their tiny bodies can fly for hours, maintain stability during wind gusts, seek out flowers and avoid predators. Try that with a nickel-size robot.