Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences & Northeastern University (US)

From flies to lobsters, small insects and animals have long been ideal models for roboticists and computer scientists. Bees, for example, possess particular skills when it comes to flight, zipping from flower to flower with ease, and hovering steadily with heavy payloads.

Harvard University has been working on developing tiny flying robots for over a decade, achieving their first flight in 2007. Inspired by a fly, this early effort required a guideline to move forward because it wasn’t yet possible to put control mechanisms on board. Building on the success of these early experiments, the RoboBee project was launched in 2009 to investigate what it would take to “create a robotic bee colony”. In 2012, the researchers bypassed key technical challenges that allowed RoboBee to take its first controlled flight.

Inspired by the biology of a bee and the intelligence of bee colony behaviour, the RoboBee measures about half the size of a paper clip, weighs less than 0.1 grams, and flies using ‘artificial muscles’ comprised of materials that contract when a voltage is applied. The project aims to push advances in miniature robotics, microfabrication, bio-inspired sensors, compact power storage, ultra-low-power computing, and algorithms that coordinate multiple, independent machines.

Potential uses of a group of coordinated, agile, robotic insects could include pollinating a field of crops, search and rescue, hazardous environment exploration, military surveillance, high resolution weather and climate mapping, and traffic monitoring.


The RoboBee Project is a coordinated effort between Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Harvard University’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Northeastern University’s Department of Biology; and Centeye, a microelectronics firm in Washington, D.C. specialising in vision chip and visual sensor technology.


The Farm Cyborg section of the exhibition explores how over the last decade we have begun outfitting plants, landscapes and animals with sensors, actuators and wearable computers.