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Errol Kerr bee-lieves that new drone intelligence could lead to the apocalypse

Errol Kerr
20th February 2017

Today, in your weekly dose of Errol screaming excitedly over scientific advancement, we have robotic bees coming straight out of Black Mirror and into our very realities. Scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) have created an ultra-lightweight drone that is able to transport pollen between flowers. These small, manually-controlled drones weigh roughly 15 grams, are 4cm wide, and are designed so that pollen grains will get stuck on their underside, allowing the grains to be transported from flower to flower. Currently, however, these small, lightweight drones are incredibly difficult to control and manoeuvre, and have only been tested on one certain flower-type: the Japanese lily, which have protruding stamens and stigma - the reproductive organs of the flower - and therefore do not require the constructs to climb into the flower in order to retrieve and deposit pollen.

“Teams are now working on technology that will allow these bee-bots to operate without manual control”

Teams are now working on technology that will allow these bee-bots (catchy, right?) to operate without manual control. A mixture of GPS, high-resolution cameras and advanced artificial intelligence will be required to move swarms of these drones to track their paths to and from different flowers. This will, scientists hope, allow for large-scale agriculture to pollinate their crops in a far more controllable manner, utilising technology to solve both the declining bee population, and an ever-increasing human population and its insatiable necessity for more and more food.

These robotic bees, however, do raise certain queries. It could take a significant amount of time to develop the artificial intelligence needed to shift these robotic pollinators from being manually controlled to being controlled automatically by a computer, a setback which could detract from their purpose of replacing declining bee populations. Also, criticisms can be seen in technology replacing organic life and the irresponsibility of humans in not simply attempting to revive and increase bee populations across the globe.

“With bee and other insect populations responsible for the pollination of about three-quarters of crop species, these inorganic replacements would not be affected by pesticides or climate change”

With bee and other insect populations responsible for the pollination of about three-quarters of crop species, these inorganic replacements would (for obvious reasons) not be affected by pesticides or climate change, but would need to be deployed in massive numbers to create a viable replacement. Alongside this, the construction and repeated utilisation of said machines would be incredibly expensive – as currently, each ‘bee’ costs around $100 – and therefore it is likely that as of this moment it’s a completely unfeasible alternative – at least, economically. Criticism has been gathered from the Australian National University who indicate the scale of the operations these drones would conduct – with the almond industry used as an example. Professor Saul Cunningham utilised this example, explaining that within an almond tree orchard spanning several kilometres, and with ‘each individual tree support[ing] fifty-thousand flowers’, the scale of using so many hundreds of thousands of bee drones would be completely improbable.

Despite this, the Japanese scientists see hope in their project, and they do not want their robotic drones to replace the organic drones of the bee population – instead, Eijiro Miyako, AIST chemist, hopes that the robots would work alongside bee populations instead of as a replacement to an already functioning organic machine, and that this would help alleviate the current crisis facing pollinator species such as bees and other insects.

Of course, we have to wonder what the future holds for these pollinator species, and should certain species – God forbid – be forced into extinction, the necessity of these automated pollinators may be undeniable. Of course, this could, indeed, lead to every conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare – with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of tiny, automated drones with cameras attached, who is going to have any security these days? Or if they’re automated by AI, what’s to stop the machine apocalypse?

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