Robobees Are Back — This Time in the Image of a “Fairy” That “Could Help Save The Planet”

By Amanda Warren

Longtime readers might remember when we first covered the Robobee concept back in 2014. Robot insect research dates back much further in military circles where they’ve been designed for search and rescue, hazardous exploration, surveillance, climate mapping, and traffic monitoring – to name a few.

Greenpeace wound up creating a fictionalized video like something from Black Mirror that postulated what the world could look like if these “superior” creations were unleashed to fulfill their singular mission as autonomous pollinators.

The real Robobee wasn’t nearly as sophisticated — nor would it ever be mistaken for the real thing — but it was hailed as a marvel of engineering nonetheless:

The main goal for the Robobee has remained lofty ever since – to solve the problem of bee-colony collapse, which legitimately would put our ability to feed ourselves at grave risk, by introducing autonomous swarms of robot pollinators. Pesticide use is well documented to negatively impact bees in a variety of ways, but the researchers oddly highlight global warming as the main issue, which remains highly debatable.

Whereas the original Robobee concept relied purely on solar power, new research is focusing on harnessing the power of both wind and light (even laser and LED) with a “fairy” robotic pollinator that was also inspired by dandelion seeds.

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This fairy-like robot could help save the planet by doing the pollinating job of bees

By Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

It’s no Tinkerbell, but it might be the closest we’ll get to seeing a real-life fairy. A team of engineers is developing a small fairy-like robot that moves with the power of wind and is controllable using light. Researchers in Finland say these dandelion-inspired smart robots could help save the environment, taking over for pollinators (like bees) who are disappearing from nature.

“Superior to its natural counterparts, this artificial seed is equipped with a soft actuator. The actuator is made of light-responsive liquid crystalline elastomer, which induces opening or closing actions of the bristles upon visible light excitation,” says Hao Zeng, an academy research fellow and the leader of the Light Robots group at Tampere University, in a media release.

Past work using stimuli-responsive polymers has created soft-bodied robots that can walk, swim, and jump. Until now, however, no one has been successful in making these types of robots fly. The fairy-like robot contains several features that make it capable of flying. It has a large number of empty spaces that supports a lightweight structure. It also easily floats through the air when the wind hits it. Additionally, the robot has a stable separated vortex ring that allows for long-distance wind-assisted traveling.

“The fairy can be powered and controlled by a light source, such as a laser beam or LED,” Zeng says.

Shining light on the robot can help modify the shape of its dandelion seed-like structure. The robot manually adapts to wind direction and force changes by altering its shape. A light beam also helps to control when it is ready to launch and land.

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Responsive polymer allows the creation of artificial, autonomously operating structures. In dark and calm weather, the fairy stays still. When there is enough light, the structure opens automatically allowing flying in the wind flow. (Photo: Jianfeng Yang / Tampere University)

Could this robot do the job of bees?

The fairy isn’t just for show and tell; they could help pollinate our environment. With some more tweaking, the engineering team has hopes that the dandelion-shaped robot could use sunlight rather than a single light beam to operate. If so, it could potentially carry micro-electronic devices like GPS and sensors on its journey.

“It sounds like science fiction, but the proof-of-concept experiments included in our research show that the robot we have developed provides an important step towards realistic applications suitable for artificial pollination,” adds Zeng.

With more fairy robots floating on the wind, scientists could use millions of artificial dandelion seeds to carry pollen. The sunlight could help steer the fairies toward specific areas with trees and flowers waiting for pollination.

“This would have a huge impact on agriculture globally since the loss of pollinators due to global warming has become a serious threat to biodiversity and food production,” Zeng concludes.

Another improvement Zeng and the team are trying to make is controlling the precision of how fairies land on plants and trees. Additionally, to make the robot eco-friendly, they hope to make them biodegradable and recyclable.

The study is published in the journal Advanced Science.

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

Top image caption and credit: For their artificial fairy, Hao Zeng and Jianfeng Yang got inspired by dandelion seeds. (Photo: Jianfeng Yang / Tampere University)

Amanda Warren writes for

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