Beekeeping in Dystopia


Beehives and sweet peas

Beehives and sweet peas

At the end of last summer I started to visit local bee keepers with the idea of writing a piece on honey bees and the art of bee keeping –  which I’ve always loved the idea of but never quite had the courage to do.

I read about the different types of bees, their colonies and how the hive works. The worrying global population demise of the honey bee due to the varroa mite, colony collapse disorder and the use of neonicotinoids in agriculture and garden chemicals. But what really grabbed my attention was an article about Robobees at Harvard University and the Green Brain project at Sheffield University.

Back in the 70’s the CIA built a gasoline-powered, four-winged dragonfly — or “insectothopter” the project was abandoned due to the instability of the bug in crosswinds. But the seed had been sown and it was only a matter of time for technology to advance to a stage where the idea of robot insects and creatures could become a reality.

In 2008 BAE systems signed a $38 million agreement with the US Army Research Laboratory to build insect sized robots for government spying operations.  “Think of an ensemble of these devices, similar to ant colonies or swarms of bees, a bunch of them going into an area and gathering information,” BAE Systems Technical Director Mark Falco said. (Source: Nanowerk.com – The Union Leader Jim Kozubek).

Over the last decade Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have been working on a  project called ‘Micro Air Vehicles’ AKA  Robobees which in plain speak is the creation of an autonomous communicating swarm of  robotic insects. Scientist working on Robobees believe they can be used in natural disaster situations for search and rescue, military surveillance, weather and climate mapping, traffic surveillance, and wait for it ….. pollinating fields of crops.

Just 2 weeks ago Harvard released a film showing the first flight of Robobee – they were very excited and rightly so. The team has utilized a quick manufacturing process inspired by children’s pop-up books to produce multiple samples at a time. Once the the design is perfected it will be easy to mass produce with a fully automated process.

A culmination of 10 years of research, improving technologies and manufacturing abilities is enabling scientists and engineers to create robotic versions of our planets’ creatures, including versions of ourselves. We now realise  that human survival is compromised by the loss of certain species as they form an integral part of the food chain and global ecosystem. And a prime example of this is the loss of our global bee population which pollinate our food crops.

Current thinking is that in order for robot creatures to work effectively they need to be able to sense and act autonomously rather than just performing a set of pre installed commands. Robots will be required to communicate with each other and act instinctively even act as a swarm in the case of Robobees.

Sheffield University’s Green Brain Project and researchers from Sussex University are attempting to create software that can achieve these goals. Funded by the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with technical help from IBM and hardware donated by NVIDIA  Scientists hope to have a bionic bee up and buzzing by 2015

“Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, but we also believe the computer modelling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modelling and computational neuroscience projects,” added Dr Nowotny, leader of the Sussex team. (Source: Sheffield University website).

As I finish writing this on International Day of Biodiversity 2013 I have to ask –  is this our near future?  Are we really resigned to giving up on nature and all it’s incredible gifts. Whilst our governments use our taxes to fund technology to find solutions to our environmental problems, I begin to wonder whether we are slowly sleep walking towards a Dystopia nightmare. Why do our governments allow corporations to profit from polluting and plundering our natural resources and allow them to genetically modify our plants and food with few restrictions? Are we really to believe that this is for our benefit and are these the choices we want our governments to make on our behalf to safeguard our planet?

Now is the time to take a moment and really think about the huge implications of these policies, because in the very near future we may no longer have any alternatives. And is that really the world we want to live in and hand on to the next generation?

As much as I love reading science fiction I really don’t want to live in a world where Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick 1968).

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