We are in the midst of an insect apocalypse. Thanks to the combined effects of habitat loss, global warming, and pesticide use, the world’s insects are disappearing fast. For those terrified of anything with more than four legs, this may seem like welcome news. However, around a third of the crops we rely on to survive are pollinated by creatures like bees. Without them, we're a bit stuck.
But now, a new futuristic creation could help us out. Meet DelFly, a robotic flying insect based on a fruit fly that beats its wings 17 times a second, can change direction and hover, and travels up to 15 miles (24 kilometers) per hour. Its creators, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, hope that it could one day be used to pollinate plants where the natural alternatives are lacking.
The robots are quite a bit bigger than real insects, with the larger model having a wingspan of 33 centimeters (13 inches), and the smaller version 10 centimeters (4 inches). However, although the robots are still being tweaked and developed, researcher Matěj Karásek told The Guardian that the team aren’t trying to create tiny insect replicas.
“We are not trying to copy flies and bees, but we are trying to learn from them,” he said. “Physics limits how small normal drones can be.”
The DelFly’s creators see it whizzing around agricultural greenhouses and warehouses, noting that the robots are very light and would therefore pose no risk to humans working alongside them. They could help us maintain food production if more insects disappear, but there are other possible applications too.
"We can imagine even pollination of wild plants, which poses even more challenges like being exposed to the elements," Karásek told IFLScience, "but let's hope this won't be necessary."
While the new robots provide a clever solution to a lack of insects, we shouldn’t give up trying to protect and conserve the pollinators we already have, like bees, butterflies, and wasps. A shocking study last year found that three-quarters of Germany’s flying insects had disappeared in just 30 years, a trend likely occurring across the globe.
One big factor is pesticides, an issue many governments are currently attempting to tackle. The European Union recently banned three key types of neonicotinoids, the group of insecticides known to harm bees. However, more needs to change as many harmful pesticides are still used.
"The bee is under threat due to our farming methods and we don't know what their future will be," Karásek told The Telegraph.
With an ever-expanding human population and the damaging effects of climate change, ingenious solutions like the DelFly could make a real difference. But let’s hope they don’t have to anytime soon.