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Robot Bees Could Assist With Tricky Rescue Operations

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When you think about robots, if you do, you might think of famous images from science fiction, some kind of tin can built to vaguely resemble a human being.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: EPISODE 1 - THE PHANTOM MENACE")

ANTHONY DANIELS: (As C-3PO) I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations.

SIMON: But why give robots our human limitations? Rob Wood, an engineer at Harvard, and colleagues are working to develop what they call a colony of flying robotic insects - what he calls RoboBees.

ROBERT WOOD: They look similar to let's say a large housefly, where there are, you know, two wings, each of the wings can flap more or less like a fly or a bee.

SIMON: Now, why develop a robotic fly or bee when you have flies and bees?

WOOD: There are several applications you could imagine. If I have, you know, these small robots that are agile and autonomous.

SIMON: For instance, search and rescue.

WOOD: You know, you can envision a firefighter having a box of a thousand of these things. And so, you know, I release them from a disaster site and they look for survivors.

SIMON: And although RoboBees are tiny, and that's the point of them, Rob Wood says they can draw strength from operating in a swarm.

WOOD: If several of the robots were to be injured or no longer functional, then others will just take the place. That's not true if you have, you know, one all-purpose big, sophisticated robot. If that gets broken, then, you know, mission over.

SIMON: Rob Wood of Harvard says the development of robots as small as flies or bees may also lead to other tiny robotic devices that could be used in medicine. In the meantime, if you feel a small bite at the back of your neck, be careful before you swat. Is that an insect or sophisticated technology? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.