Harvard’s Robobees Could Save Us or Become a Method for Surveillance

Bees help pollenate much of our crops. Without them, the food supply is doomed. 


Many were shocked recently to see articles splashed across the internet foretelling the end of the beloved honeybee, which was supposedly listed for the first time on the endangered species list. This turned out to be a misconception. These familiar pollinators are doing fine. It’s a specific kind of bee that’s listed, native only to Hawaii. Even though bee colonies are on the mend from a mysterious condition known as “colony collapse disorder,” the phenomenon allows us to recognize just how important bees really are.

Honey bee pollination today is worth $15 billion to the US economy. Strawberries, coffee, avocados, and many, many other foods would be wiped off the Earth. As a result, humanity would not survive without these dutiful insects. One-third of our food supply comes from crops pollinated by bees.

Due to their essential nature and the fact that robotics has come so far in the last several years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently tasked roboticists with a challenge, create a type of tiny robot that can sustain flight independently, communicate with its brethren, pollinate crops, and provide communications in rural areas.

These micro-robots could be used in agriculture as well as disaster relief. Harvard scientists along with colleagues at Northeastern University, supported by the NSF, rose to the challenge. 180 days were all that were given to show results.


Oregon State University researcher investigates “colony collapse disorder.”

Last year, a group of scientists at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), led by Professor Robert Wood, unveiled a group of autonomous flying micro-robots, which have been dubbed “robobees." These robots fly, hover, and even swim. Though it can only swim in deionized water, currently. Their tiny wings really move, beating 120 times per second.

Though nicknamed robobees, its flying ability was actually modeled after an agile bird, the puffin, which uses the same wing strokes to fly and to swim. A pyramid-shaped sensor at its head controls the robot as a main nerve center, forgoing the external camera and sensor arrays used in robots past.

Recently, researchers released another video, showing that the 84-mg. robot—about the size of a real honey bee, can now adhere to walls. Electrostatic adhesive patches allow it to stick to just about any surface. This saves oodles of power which it would otherwise use to hover. Though today, these micro-robots remain wired to a power supply, this is no less an impressive feat.

The first of their kind, Harvard roboticist Kevin Ma told Business Insider that the next phase is an untethered device, which will be larger and able to carry its own power supply, a battery. Though not ready to replace worker bees just yet, researchers believe they will be able to pollenate crops in about a decade or so. The fear of losing bees is still a legitimate concern, regardless of this announcement.


Regardless of this breakthrough, real bees still need to be protected.

On the project’s website, researchers point out that these micro-robots aren’t meant to supplant bees in total. Instead, this is a “stop-gap measure,” allowing time to find out why honeybee colonies are collapsing, should the trend begin again, and how to address it. Scientists envision thousands of such robobees traveling in swarms, leaderless, and coordinating with one another to complete missions. Though they wouldn’t be able to pick up nectar, each can travel from one flower to the next, carrying pollen.

Of course, as always with new technology, implications are bound to crop up, not perceived at the time of inception. Will we become more lax with environmental regulations, now that we know we have a replacement for bees?Another concern is privacy. How easy would it be for such robobees to be used for spying? Intelligence agencies and experts in corporate espionage might take a liking to them. If you think these hacking scandals are bad, wait until robobees come out.

Sci-fi and comic book fans don’t have to go through much of a stretch to see swarms of thousands of robobees each carrying an explosive device to enact assassinations or a terrorist attack. Though it will be years before this technology is viable out in the field, scientists, regulators, public officials, and the public at large should begin to parse out the implications and set up safeguards to protect citizens, society, and the environment as well. But for those worried about colony collapse and the implications for humanity, never fear, robobees are on the way! 

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
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  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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