Binge watchers of Netflix’s Black Mirror, released on Friday, understand that the only thing more terrifying than a swarm of bees, is a swarm of robotic bees harnessed to a nefarious end. The final episode, “Hated in the Nation,” is showrunner Charlie Brooker’s pièce de résistance, a truly terrifying imagination of the near future that comes a little too close to the truth for comfort. The super-long season finale takes aim at the real, destructive power of swarms, online and IRL.
In this episode, (spoilers ahead) the villains are robotic bees, made to pollinate crops in the absence of real insects, but hacked, so that instead they go after the targets of online dragnets. Anyone marked with the #DeathTo hashtag might soon find themselves swarmed by tiny drones that fly up their nose and short-circuit their brain as their victim meets an extraordinarily painful end.
In the real world, a team of Harvard researchers are actually working on robotic bees that could one day fill the role of pollinators. They’ve been nicknamed “RoboBees,” and they’re already airborne. In 2013, the team demonstrated that the little bugs could fly and hover, albeit still attached to a wire and external power source. This year the team announced a great leap in efficiency — the RoboBees can now perch on objects from any angle, using just the force of static electricity. That saves precious energy that might otherwise by used in a hover. Oh yeah — and they can swim.
We’re still a ways off from micro-drones that can actually pollinate flowers, let alone go off on murderous rampages. The engineers will have to find a power source small enough and light enough that the little bees can go off on little untethered jaunts of their own. And then, they’ll have to have the power to communicate with each other and work as a swarm to efficiently pollinate the fields. Even in a best-case scenario, it will be 10-15 years before tiny drones can fly autonomously, flower to flower, Harvard engineer Kevin Ma tells Business Insider.
The team imagines other jobs for their future bees, like finding survivors in the wake of a natural disaster, or spying on military targets. The more powerful they become, the easier it is to imagine them being co-opted for malevolent intentions.
A proliferation of micro-drones is almost certainly in humanity’s future. They will probably, at some point, be able to work together and act as a swarm. Could they be programmed to kill? Of course. Drones are already responsible for thousands of human deaths, and there’s no reason to believe tiny counterparts won’t be weaponized, too.
It’s actually far more likely that insect drones will be used in warfare, rather than agriculture. The worldwide decline of bee populations is a disaster, but there are solutions that don’t require replicating the bee, itself, in robot form. Plants can be pollinated by hand with paintbrushes, or they can be sprayed with pollen by airplanes overhead, or machinery on the ground.
Still, turning pollinators into weapons of mass terror would likely take more than some clever hacking. Even a very large swarm of RoboBees would have a hard time being more than an annoyance to a human, and would be very vulnerable to a swat from a hand.
And while the idea of bee robots doing the work of bees might comfort some, it’s unlikely that RoboBees will ever be as cheap and efficient as the real deal. Human engineering can do amazing things, but it has yet to come close to the technology produced through billions of years of natural selection.
The RoboBees team doesn’t see their tech as a replacement for real bees, but as a stop-gap measure to ease the pain until bee populations can be brought up to healthy levels. A world without bees would be a nightmare, even if their replacements manage to avoid killing sprees.