WORCESTER, Mass. - With the world’s bee population facing an uncertain future, Worcester Polytechnic Institute engineers are hoping a new drone they’ve been working on can help keep pollination going.

What You Need To Know

  • A new drone at WPI could eventually help address the void left by a dwindling bee population

  • The "Robo Bee" is an autonomous flying robot measuring slightly less than five inches, fitted with four small propellers and a powerful camera

  • While there is more work to do, the technology could eventually prove to be an efficient and cost-effective way to pollinate flowers

  • More than half of North America's native bee species are declining

The drone, nicknamed the "Robo Bee," is an autonomous flying robot measuring slightly less than five inches across, fitted with four small propellers and a powerful camera which can be used to identify flowers and help pollinate them.

Nitin Sanket, an assistant professor in the department of robotics engineering, has been tinkering with the build with the help of engineering master’s student Rishabh Singh.

“The pollinator drone started as a joke in my PhD,” Sanket said. “Me and my advisor, we were talking about it. We were like, ‘We should just build a drone that small, so we can prove to the world that it makes sense to do autonomy on this scale.'”

While drones have been used for deliveries, search and rescue operations and photography, this is certainly a first. With more than half of North America’s native bee species declining, Sanket believes the drone, with its delicate web of wires, sensors and propellers, can eventually be programmed to think like a bee would.

“We are going back to the basics, we let nature tell us how to do this,” Sanket said. “We are looking at ecology studies from about 50 years ago - how bees do this, how hummingbirds do this, because that's the scale we are working at. Bees are very resilient. They're very clumsy. They run into stuff all the time, and nothing happens because they are so small and so light. That's what we want our drones to do.”

While the "Robo Bee" is still very much a work in progress, Sanket is hopeful the technology has a bright future. He believes if the drones were ever mass-produced, they could be a cheap and efficient way to address a shrinking bee population.

“I think it took a very good turn,” Sanket said. “I think it's very exciting to see the research we’re doing has actual far-reaching implications, not too far into the future. It can actually happen. Then, in the next few years, our kids and the next generation can actually reap the benefits of this.”

According to WPI, engineers and researchers at MIT, Harvard and the University of Washington are working on strategies to help make the drone even smaller.