If the decline of bees continues, researchers have a plan to unleash swarms of robot bees to pollinate crops

Bees are vital to most of the world’s food crops but their numbers have been declining in recent decades, so researchers at The University of Manchester are working towards a future where they are replaced by robot bees.

According to Greenpeace, the global economic benefit of pollination amounts to some €265bn, but bee populations have been in decline due to factors such as diseases and parasites, climate change and wider industrial and agricultural practices.

However, researchers at the University of Manchester have begun work on mechanical bees that could pollinate crops and flowers.

Image courtesy of The University of Manchester

“We’re aiming to create the world’s first robot bee that can fly unaided and unaccompanied,” said Dr Mostafa Nabawy, microsystems research theme leader at The University of Manchester’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering.

“Imagine if the current trend of a declining bee population continues, swarms of robot bees pollinating crops and flowers could become a reality. Whilst this may sound like something out of a transformers film this is our ultimate aim.”

In addition to robot bees, the researchers are also developing robot spiders that could be used in field such as engineering and manufacturing.

The robot spiders have been modelled on a specific species of jumping spider called Phidippus regius, which can jump up to six-times longer than its own body length from a standing start.

Image courtesy of The University of Manchester

Having analysed how real spiders make such leaps, the team has now begun developing prototype robots that can mimic these biomechanical movements.

“For our robotic spiders research we are looking at a specific species of jumping spider called Phidippus regius. We have trained it to jump different distances and heights, recording the spider’s every movement in extreme detail through high resolution cameras which can be slowed down,” said Nabawy.

“We are now using this bio-mechanical data to model robots that can perform with the same abilities. With this extensive dataset we have already started developing prototype robots that can mimic these biomechanical movements and jump several centimetres.”

The researchers’ work on robot bees has been released days after it was revealed that hoverflies may be spreading infections that are deadly to bees.

DARPA wants sea life to start monitoring for underwater threats

File this one under ‘you couldn’t make it up’: DARPA, the US’ research agency, wants to start using sea life to monitor seas and oceans for threats.

Under the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) programme, DARPA plans to test whether natural or modified organisms could be used to detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles.

“The US Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource intensive. As a result, the capability is mostly used at the tactical level to protect high-value assets like aircraft carriers, and less so at the broader strategic level,” said PALS programme manager, Lori Adornato.

“If we can tap into the innate sensing capabilities of living organisms that are ubiquitous in the oceans, we can extend our ability to track adversary activity and do so discreetly, on a persistent basis, and with enough precision to characterise the size and type of adversary vehicles.”

DARPA claims that sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over the current hardware used for monitoring.

Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains.

DARPA also notes that evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains – tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical, and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.

“Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations,” Adornato said.

PALS researchers and teams working with the programme will now begin to develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate marine life behaviour into actionable information and then communicate it to end users.

In other words, DARPA wants its researchers to build the tech that would turn marine life into the sea version of Lassie.

Any tech proposed by PALS will ideally be capable of sending data to devices as far as 500 meters away, and the complete sensing systems must also discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.

DARPA anticipates that PALS will be a four-year, fundamental research programme requiring contributions in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, machine learning, analytics, oceanography, mechanical and electrical engineering, and weak signals detection.