In Harvard researcher Robert Wood’s lab, a robot the size of a quarter lifts off the ground, its wings a blur. This micromachine, or RoboBee, is a marvel of modern robotics, able to hover and steer by independently flapping its wings 120 times a second.

RoboBee’s inventors think it might one day pollinate crops, supporting bee populations that are struggling to overcome colony collapse disorder—a phenomenon in which bee keepers are losing an abnormally high number of hives to as yet unconfirmed causes.

But there’s a catch.

To do anything as complicated as crop pollination, RoboBee needs to be autonomous—and it isn’t. Being as lightweight as possible is crucial for flying robots. And while RoboBee has advanced over the years, from flying in only a straight line to making turns, it still trails an electrical umbilical cord for power because it can’t lift batteries.

That may be about to change, however, according to Kevin Ma, a graduate student and mechanical engineer on Wood's RoboBee team. In a Business Insider interview, Ma said the team will soon free RoboBee of its tether. They’re building a larger version that can carry a battery and the various components necessary for autonomous flight.

Ma said, “We're on the eve of the next big development. Something will be published in the next few months. The robot can now carry more weight. That's important for the battery and other electronics and sensors.”

Ditching the tether is critical, but of course, it’s only the first step.

Other challenges include getting it to perform specific tasks and fly faster. And battery technology is still a bottleneck in flying robots. RoboBee’s larger brethren—popular quadcopter drones, for example—can only stay aloft for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. A swarm of robot pollinators would ideally be out in the fields for much longer.

Working out the kinks will take time. Ma said, “With continued government funding and research we could see this thing functional in 10 to 15 years."

robotic-bee-harvardWill tiny flying robots one day be used to pollinate crops? Maybe. Maybe not.

Finding a big application helps inspire research and attract funding and publicity. Indeed, in 2007, RoboBee was Harvard's “robotic fly”—decidedly less catchy. Colony collapse disorder is a high profile worry, and tiny flying robots may be part of the solution.

But forget specific applications for a second. If the robot was dubbed RoboFly, it might not get quite as much coverage, but it would be just as groundbreaking.

Although engineers may invent something with a specific purpose in mind, the actual invention (or even just parts of it) often ends up being useful in many alternate applications that only become apparent later in the hands of others.

Memory foam, for example, was developed under a NASA contract as seat cushioning and crash protection for pilots and passengers in flight. Now, we sleep on the stuff put it in helmets and shoes (with an antibacterial topper, of course).

Another prime illustration is the miniaturization of chips and sensors for handheld devices. These components are, of course, indispensable in smartphones and tablets, and such devices were the driving force that funded and directed the innovation.

But increasingly tiny sensors and chips are finding uses outside the original intention: the Internet of Things, wearable devices, and miniature robots.

Though news stories focus on pollination, the team lists other possible uses: search and rescue after a natural disaster, hazardous environmental exploration, military surveillance, high resolution weather and climate mapping, and traffic monitoring.

And how about robot swarms monitoring crop health and performing plant maintenance? Or keeping an eye on key infrastructure in cities, maybe even making repairs?

One or all of these may prove a good use for RoboBee (and similar bots). But they’re also already commonly cited as likely future uses for flying robots of all sizes.

It’s the stuff that no one thinks of early on that’s most radical and groundbreaking later. And just as miniature sensors and chips are finding their way into multiple fields, the same may well be true of innovations in robotics like the ones the RoboBee team continues to press on toward.

Image Credit: MicroroboticsLab/YouTube

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.