In Harvard researcher Robert Wood’s lab, a robot the size of a quarter lifts off the ground, its wings a blur. This micromachine, or RoboBee, is a marvel of modern robotics, able to hover and steer by independently flapping its wings 120 times a second.
RoboBee’s inventors think it might one day pollinate crops, supporting bee populations that are struggling to overcome colony collapse disorder—a phenomenon in which bee keepers are losing an abnormally high number of hives to as yet unconfirmed causes.
But there’s a catch.
To do anything as complicated as crop pollination, RoboBee needs to be autonomous—and it isn’t. Being as lightweight as possible is crucial for flying robots. And while RoboBee has advanced over the years, from flying in only a straight line to making turns, it still trails an electrical umbilical cord for power because it can’t lift batteries.