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RoboBees: Tiny Robot Insects Take Flight (VIDEO)

05/02/2013 08:55 EDT | Updated 05/03/2013 03:16 EDT

Harvard researchers are hailing these miniature marvels as the bee's knees.

Privacy advocates, on the other hand, may be thinking more along the lines of the gnat's bollocks.

Hardly bigger than a fingertip, and appropriately dubbed, RoboBees, they may be the smallest robots on the planet, tech site Geekosystem reports.

Although the drones took flight last year, the Harvard team has only made video from the test available this week. In it, the RoboBee flaps its translucent wings 120 times per second, stirring up a very lifelike buzzing sound along the way.

According to the School of Applied Sciences and Engineering website, the RoboBee's design was inspired by nature itself -- researchers hoped to "mimic the collective behavior and 'intelligence' of a bee colony."

They're hoping the RoboBee leads the way to new understandings of entomology and developmental biology -- while spurring innovation in minuscule mechanical devices.

In other words, micro-drones.

That could spell good news for search and rescue missions -- imagine a swarm of searching bees combing a crash site. Or the tiny robotic eyes conducting covert surveillance.

As Robert Wood, one of the collaborators on the RoboBee project, explained in a Scientific American essay, the project began as a response to Colony Collapse Disorder -- an affliction that threatens to devastate the honey bees population.

In 2009, Wood and his colleagues "began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual's behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees."

The idea is to build swarms of mechanical drones working in unison like a real hive -- and, perhaps, pollinating the flowers of the future.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story suggested RoboBees flap their wings 120 times per hour, rather than per second.

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