Swarms of robotic bees could pollinate the flowers of the future
by Lauren Davis / 3/12/13
With the bee population in distressing decline, Harvard roboticists have been looking into an artificial solution for pollinating plants. That solution: Robobees, tiny winged robots that the team hopes will autonomously fly from flower to flower, spreading the pollen around. But these creepy little beauties may do more than pollinate — and they may be more insect-like than we ever imagined. The Harvard Microrobotics Lab, founded within the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has been working on developing the Robobees, also known as the Micro Air Vehicles Project, since 2009. The idea is to pull from both the biomechanics and social organization of bees to create robots that can both fly and, to some extent, behave like bees.
One of the challenges is packing all of the necessary power and electronics into a lightweight body. Professor Rob Wood explains that they’ve taken a design approach inspired in part by children’s pop-up books, folding and layering the individual components on top of one another. Fortunately, in 2007, Wood’s lab conducted the first successful flight of a life-sized robotic fly, and the microrobotics lab has been continuing that research. To guide the Robobees from flower to flower, the team is also developing sensors that can inform the robot in much the way a bee’s antennae and eyes do. The Robobees won’t just share the pollinating function of real bees; the team is also looking to imbue them with colony behaviors. Although they won’t have a queen, the Robobees will live in a hive, which functions as a refueling station. Coordination algorithms and communication methods are in the works as well, hopefully giving the Robobees the ability to inform and help one another—sadly, without dancing. The Microrobotics lab seems a host of possible uses for the robotic insects, including military surveillance, search and rescue missions, exploration of hazardous environments, traffic surveillance, and weather and climate mapping. Unfortunately, though, it seems they won’t be taking over all of the bees’ regular duties. While these Robobees don’t come with stingers yet, they aren’t off making honey, either.
by Akua F. Abu & David W. Kaufman / February 22, 2012
A new fabrication technique for creating robotic insects crawled out of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory this week. The technique, which its creators say was inspired by children’s pop-up books and origami, is the latest development in the RoboBee project, which aims to produce autonomous robots about the size of a quarter. The new method, which can create RoboBees in a day instead of a few weeks, sprung from frustration with the lengthy original process, which required engineers to individually assemble the robot’s separate components by folding, aligning, and securing them by hand. The new process reduces the time required and removes the possibility of human error by incorporating techniques similar to those used in the manufacturing of printed circuit boards. The 18 different layers of carbon fiber, titanium, and other materials that compose the Harvard Monolithic Bee—also called Mobee—are stacked and bonded together at once in a flat design.
When lifted by pins, an attached assembly scaffold pops up the flat structure into a 2.4-millimeter tall machine in under a second. The device is dipped into a liquid metal solder to lock the robotic joints and the scaffold is cut away, releasing the Mobee. “It’s like you’re building two devices; one is your actual robot, and the other is a second robot that assembles the first robot for you,” said John P. Whitney, a SEAS research assistant who helped design the underlying manufacturing methods. The fully automated process of building the RoboBee can now use a wider variety of materials and allows for the rapid production of clones of the micro-robots by the sheet. The technology can be used in a variety of commercial applications, as the RoboBees can now be produced quickly by machines “Instead of having a skilled craftsman or artisan build one over the course of a week, this process really allows them to be mass-produced for the first time,” said Pratheev S. Sreetharan, a graduate student who led and designed the new process. Sreetharan can trace the roots of the new method to an off-hand comment made by electrical engineering professor Robert J. Wood “Rob made a joke about making something that would function like a ship in a bottle. You’d stick it in, pull a string, and the whole thing would pop up,” Sreetharan said. “We all laughed about it then, but that’s the basic idea behind what we developed.”
For the researchers, seeing the first successful pop-up RoboBees was a vindication. “It was exciting to see the first ones pop up,” said Sreetharan, “We sent an email saying that we could get all the parts in one set. Wood sent one back saying ‘Seriously? I thought that was 10 years away.’” The new process has drawn much praise for its implications on micro-fabrication. “Much like the way that integrated circuits changed the world of electronics, I believe this novel fabrication technique has the potential to open up a new era of discovery and advancement for micro-robotics,” said electrical engineering professor Gu-Yeon Wei. Computer science professor J. Gregory Morrisett also lauded the laboratory, writing in an email to The Crimson that “Rob Wood (and his team) are geniuses.” The process may be applicable to the design of micro-surgical devices, micro-sensors, micro-optics, and other integrated electromechanical devices. The researchers are working to extend their process to integrate printed circuit boards into the mechanical structure of the robots. [Their new method will be featured in the March issue of the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.]
Plagued by colony collapse disorder, the honeybees that do much of the world’s pollination work are in decline, and cheap access to many flowering plants that we depend on for food—from almonds to apples to soybeans—could follow them down. Ideally, some intrepid scientist will find a fix for CCD, and the bees will be saved. But there could also be a technological solution to the pollination problem. Researchers have recently worked out the basics of a robotic bee which they say could be used to pollinate plants, search through disaster zones, or perform any variety of tasks where a small swarm of cooperative robots might come in handy.
Some of the scientists behind the project, Robert Wood, Radhika Nagpal and Gu-Yeon Wei, wrote recently in Scientific American about their efforts:
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.
They detail how they get their little bees to fly using a series of custom designed artificial muscles “made of piezoelectric materials that contract when you apply a voltage across their thickness.”
Instead of spinning motors and gears, we designed the RoboBee with an anatomy that closely mirrors an airborne insect—flapping wings powered by (in this case) artificial muscles. Our muscle system uses separate “muscles” for power and control. Relatively large power actuators oscillate the wing-thorax mechanism to power the wing stroke while smaller control actuators fine-tune wing motions to generate torque for control and maneuvering.
“These muscles generate an amount of power comparable to those muscles in insects of similar size,” they write. More than just the mechanics of bee movement, however, the scientists also want to train their little robobees to behave like a real colony—interacting, communicating, working together for the good of the hive. They suggest that they still have a fair bit of work ahead of them, but they expect to see them in the wild in five to 10 years.
MEANWHILE (NOT HELPING)
US government sued over use of pesticides linked to bee harm
by Damian Carrington / 22 March 2013
The US government is being sued by a coalition of beekeepers, conservation and food campaigners over pesticides linked to serious harm in bees. The lawsuit accuses the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of failing to protect the insects – which pollinate three-quarters of all food crops – from nerve agents that it says should be suspended from use. Neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used insecticides, are also facing the prospect of suspension in the European Union, after the health commissioner pledged to press on with the proposed ban despite opposition from the UK and Germany. “We have demonstrated time and time again over the last several years that the EPA needs to protect bees,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney at the Centre for Food Safety who is representing the coalition. “The agency has refused, so we’ve been compelled to sue.”
“America’s beekeepers cannot survive for long with the toxic environment EPA has supported,” said Steve Ellis, a Minnesota and California beekeeper and one of the plaintiffs who filed the suit at the federal district court. “Bee-toxic pesticides in dozens of widely used products, on top of many other stresses our industry faces, are killing our bees.” The EPA declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement: “We are working aggressively to protect bees and other pollinators from pesticide risks through regulatory, voluntary and research programmes. Specifically, the EPA is accelerating the schedule for registration review of the neonicotinoid pesticides because of uncertainties about them and their potential effects on bees.” However, even the accelerated review will not be completed before 2018.
The pesticides named in the lawsuits are clothianidin, manufactured by Bayer, and thiamethoxam, made by Syngenta. Neither company chose to comment on the lawsuit, but industry group Crop Life America (CLA) is representing some of the companies. “The CLA fully supports and trusts the rigour of EPA’s review process for crop protection products, including neonicotinoids,” said Ray McAllister, senior director of regulatory affairs at CLA. “This class of product represents an important component of modern agriculture that helps farmers protect their crops. Neonicotinoids are thoroughly tested and monitored for potential risks to the environment and various beneficial species, including honeybees.”
A series of high-profile scientific studies in the last year have increasingly linked neonicotinoids to harmful effects in bees, including huge losses in the number of queens produced, and big increases in “disappeared” bees that fail to return from foraging trips. Disease and habitat loss are also thought to be factors in the recent declines in populations of bees and other pollinators. A proposal to suspend the use of three neonicotinoids across the EU ended in a hung vote on 15 March. But Tonio Borg, the European commissioner for health and consumer policy, said this week he would take the proposal to appeal. If member states maintained their positions, the insecticides would be suspended. “The health of our bees is of paramount importance,” said Borg. “We have a duty to take proportionate yet decisive action to protect them wherever appropriate.”
The lawsuit against the EPA argues that, via “conditional registrations”, the regulator rushed the neonicotinoids into the market without sufficient examination and since that time has failed to take account of new information. “Pesticide manufacturers use conditional registrations to rush bee-toxic products to market, with little public oversight,” said Paul Towers, at Pesticide Action Network, part of the coalition. The action by the coalition, which also includes the Sierra Club and the Centre for Environmental Health, follows an emergency petition in March 2012 which demanded the EPA suspend the use of clothianidin but was not acted upon. Also issued this week was a report from the American Bird Conservancy, which said the “EPA risk assessments have greatly underestimated [the risk to birds], using scientifically unsound, outdated methodology.”
Bayer and Syngenta Lobby Furiously Against EU Efforts to Limit Pesticides and Save Bees
by Rebekah Wilce / April 22, 2013
Bee populations have been declining rapidly worldwide in recent years — in the U.S., they have declined by almost 50 percent just since October 2012, according to The Ecologist. The problem is complex, with possible culprits including certain parasites (like Varroa mites), viruses, pesticides, and industrial agriculture. But two studies published in early 2012 in the journal Science suggested a particularly strong connection between the use of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids and the decline of both bumble bee and honeybee populations. These and other studies led the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to recommend a two-year ban of the most controversial neonicotinoids by the European Commission: thiamethoxam, manufactured by Swiss company Syngenta; and imidacloprid and clothianidin, manufactured by German company Bayer. Private letters recently obtained and released by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) reveal that Bayer and Syngenta have engaged in furious lobbying against these measures. So far, the proposed partial ban has failed to reach a qualified majority of member states in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health. (Readers may recall that the Center for Media and Democracy reported in 2012 that Syngenta’s PR team investigated the press and spent millions to spin news coverage in the face of growing concerns about potential health risks from its widely used weed-killer products containing atrazine.)
Anatomy of a Neurotoxin: Neonicotinoid Pesticides
Neonicotinoid insecticides have been used for years on corn, soy, wheat, and canola (called rapeseed in Canada and Europe). When they were introduced in the 1990s, they were initially welcomed as much safer for humans, livestock and birds than other insecticides. Their most common use is as a seed treatment. Since they are a systemic pesticide, from the seed they enter each part of the growing plant, including the pollen. According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), 94 percent of U.S. corn seeds are treated with either imidacloprid or clothianidin. That makes nicotinoids remarkably prevalent in pollen collected by bees.
Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, was one of the authors of the spring 2012Science study on neonicotinoids and bumble bees. In the study, scientists exposed bumble bee colonies to the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. Compared to control colonies, treated colonies “had a significantly reduced growth rate and suffered an 85% reduction in production of queens…” Dr. Goulson told CMD: “Exposure to these pesticides, which are essentially a neurotoxin, was affecting the ability of the bees to learn, to find their way home, to navigate, to collect food, and so on, which is hardly surprising if you realize they’re neurotoxins. . . . What we found, which was I must admit surprising in its extent, was that the treated nests did grow more slowly, but most dramatically, the effect on queen production was really strong. So we had an 85 percent drop in queen production of nests that were exposed just for that two-week period to pretty low concentrations of these pesticides compared to the control nests.” Results of the honeybee study published in the same issue were similar: honeybee foragers got lost on their way back to hives after exposure to low doses of neonicotinoids.
Bayer and Syngenta Lobby to Prevent Ban
Earlier scientific studies had already induced Italy, Slovenia, and Germany to suspend approval of new neonicotinoid-treated seeds and ban certain uses of the pesticides. Then in March 2012, the European Commission mandated EFSA to deliver a scientific opinion on the report that had led to Italy’s suspension of neonicotinoid-treated corn seeds. After the April 2012 publication of the Science articles, the Commission asked EFSA to include them in its review. In June 2012, the French government announced that it would withdraw the registration of thiamethoxam. The response of Bayer and Syngenta was to unleash a barrage of letters to the food safety agency and the European Commission, followed later by threatened lawsuits. As CEO reported, the two companies made the following increasingly shrill arguments against the proposed partial ban: that past incidents of pesticide poisoning of honeybees were farmers’ fault, not the products’; that member states that had limited use of neonicotinoids were “driven by a small group of activists and hobby beekeepers“; that the pesticide company is an important contributor to global food security and committed to spending money in Africa; that the agency was at risk of coming to “wrong conclusions from a rushed process that could have disastrous implications for agriculture and ironically for bee health”; that “independent” analysis shows that Europe can’t survive without neonicotinoids; etc. Eventually, when EFSA concluded that it recommended the pesticides be banned and sent Syngenta an embargoed press release with its findings, the company claimed there were inaccuracies, threatened to “consider our legal options” if the release was not changed by a deadline set by Syngenta. Then, when the release was published without the company’s suggested changes, demanded access to all documents related to the drafting of the press release “and in particular the name(s) of the civil servant(s) responsible for the decision to publish the Press Release setting aside Syngenta’s comments.”
Follow-up with a PR “Charm Offensive”
In the wake of EFSA’s and the European Commission’s recommendations and the subsequent failure of the European Member States to reach a qualified majority to put the ban in place effective July 2013, Bayer and Syngenta then launched what CEO called a “charm offensive to be seen as part of the solution rather than of the problem.” For Syngenta, this consists of an upgrade of its PR sting “Operation Pollinator,” in which the company proposes to provide payments to a few farmers to grow strips of flowers and other plants attractive to bees alongside their neonicotinoid-treated crops. “This comprehensive plan will bring valuable insights into the area of bee health, whereas a ban on neonicotinoids would simply close the door to understanding the problem,” Syngenta Chief Operating Officer John Atkin told Greenwise Business in early April. “Banning these products would not save a single hive and it is time that everyone focused on addressing the real causes of declining bee populations.” Dr. Goulson responds that the answer is not so simple, but that “very probably” if neonicotoid pesticides were banned, “on average honeybees would be healthier and would be better able to cope with the other things that they’re currently having to deal with…”
EU member states are likely to vote again on the proposed partial ban of neonicotinoids on either April 26 or May 2, according to CEO, which notes: “Meanwhile, the pesticides industry is lobbying Member States hard to try to reach a qualified majority to reject the proposal outright and thus block the ban. The coming weeks’ battle will be crucial: will industry interests prevail against bees’ survival?” But the issue of bees and pesticides is a global problem, and according to PRWatch contributor Jill Richardson, the extermination of honeybees, in particular, “could set off a global food crisis.” She reports that, in contrast with Europe’s efforts to enact measures to save the bees, beekeepers in the United States “remain frustrated that the U.S. government is not as forward-thinking.” In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is “allowing the use of a new, unregistered neonicotinoids called sulfoxaflor, and proposing a ‘conditional registration’ for it,” according to Richardson. In response, the U.S. environmental advocate group PANNA and others are suing the EPA “for its failure to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides.” PANNA is asking supporters to urge the U.S. Congress to “step up,” call a hearing, and “fix a broken pesticide law that leaves EPA hamstrung.” In fact, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Kirsten Gillibrand re-introduced the “Safe Chemicals Act,” which would reform pesticide regulation in addition to that of a host of toxic chemicals.