Robotic Bees and Substitutability

Bees are essential to humans, because they pollinate food crops. One third of our food supply — and 100% of our almonds — are pollinated by honeybees. Commercial honeybees have been dying in unprecedented numbers over the past few years, maybe because of pesticides, maybe because of poor farming practices. Is this a threat to our food supply?

In the 1990s, one area in China lost its bees. They discovered that human workers with paintbrushes could actually do a better job of pollinating apple trees than the bees did. Crops were larger, and the money paid to the human workers made its way into the local economy. Finding willing bee pollinators and fitting them into the workflow of a company could be challenging, but it’s good to know that it’s a practical backup.

Now researchers in Japan are working on robobees, tiny drones which could be used to pollinate crops. Elizabeth Franklin says, “The three major factors that make insect pollinators, such as bees, so good at what they do are their independent decision making, learning and teamwork. Each bee can decide what flowers are suitable, manage their energy usage and keep themselves clean of stale pollen.” Robobees aren’t as good at this as real bees.

Where they fall short: communication and collaboration, not to mention figuring how to get into complicated flowers. Communication and collaboration are high on the list of things robot manufacturers are currently working on, so effective robobee pollinators may be on the horizon.

But their actual market value has to do with what economists call “substitutability.” Basically this principle says that any worker is valuable only until a better way to meet the need they fill comes along.

Bees are not the best pollinators, at least in limited commercial settings. But human beings aren’t clamoring for that job and there are still plenty of bees, so the bees get to keep their jobs for the foreseeable future.

Robots aren’t as good as bees, let alone humans, at pollination, so they won’t be a good substitute pollinator for some time, if ever.

How about your Rexroth electric motion control systems? We don’t think you’ll find anything better to replace them in the near future — unless it’s an upgrade to another Rexroth electric motion control system. Want to discuss your needs in this area? Contact us. We can supply emergency service, or help you plan for the future.

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