Tiny, Robotic Bees Could Change the World, National Geographic

A Revolution of Tiny Robots

When it comes to robots, sometimes smaller is better.

August 8, 2017, Bruno Jacobsen

Much has been said about how industrial and non-industrial robots are changing the world. And no one debates the fact that they have the potential to change it even more. But when we think of robots, most of us think of industrial robotic arms, military robots, or anthropomorphic service robots. In other words, big robots. Few think of those robots that are rarely visible to the naked eye: microrobots. 


In late May this year, an essay in Nature showed how a microrobot, controlled by a magnetic helix, was capable of capturing an immotile bovine sperm cell and carry it to an egg cell. The helix with magnetic properties is called a "physical" motor (as opposed to alternative forms of motor such as chemical and biohybrid), capable of transporting eggs, cells, genes, and so on. 

This is no doubt impressive and raises important questions about the impact of nanotechnology in the medical industry. However, as the authors suggested in the same article, much more needs to be done. For one, although it is possible to control the microrobots in in vitro situations, controlling them in biological environments can be much harder. The question of what happens to them after they serve their purpose (how are they removed or stopped?) also needs to be answered. Finally, a number of new techniques to make the most of their use needs to come about, in addition to regulations that ensure they are properly used.

But it's not just about microrobots swimming inside our bodies. We'll also have tiny robots above us and around us. At the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, they have been developing RoboBees, which are autonomous flying microrobots (kind of like mini-drones). The name comes from their similarity to a bee, with two wings that can act independently. These microbots are half the size of a paperclip and weight less than one-tenth of a gram. 

What could they be used for? According to the institute , their applications will range from environmental monitoring (for example, quality of agricultural land), weather monitoring, search and rescue missions, crop pollination, and surveillance. But these are in no way the full range of uses for RoboBees and similar flying microbots. From the military to the entertainment industry, there will no doubt be many businesses forming around it.

Just like drones drew and continue to draw a lot of attention for their many possibilities, so might these microbots, whether they operate on sea, land, or air. It could be the perfect time to start thinking about how they may impact your life or business in future, and whether you can take advantage of this technology.

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