Environment / Technology

Origami Robots: A Guide to Bees and Evil

rainbow of cranes

courtesy flickr/blu_pineappl3

What’s the most complicated thing you’ve ever folded?  Paper airplane?  Road map, perhaps?  I’ve folded my fair share of origami cranes in my day.  Then there’s this guy, whose ornate paper dragons and hermit crabs beggar belief.

But here’s something on a whole other level: a fully-functional, self-folding, flying robot inspired by pop-up books.  Harvard’s Micro-Robotics lab (yes, they have one of those) has pioneered a way to efficiently mass-produce large numbers of tiny robots.   Check out the video (skip ahead to 2:40 if you just want the folding part):

To be clear, the layered, laser-cut assembly process is the real star here. I’m sure it has untold numbers of incredible applications.

But they had me at “robot bees.”  Robot bees, you guys!  Just imagine if you had a swarm of them at your beck and call.  What would you use them for?  Here’s a quick and dirty guide to what my bee swarm might get up to, sorted by moral alignment.


  • Pollinate flowers and crops, to counteract colony collapse disorder.  This does not mean that letting real bees disappear is in any way acceptable, but if we can’t fix it, at least we could still have apples and zucchini.
  • Explore dangerous, or fragile, places.  We could learn about volcanoes, deserts, and deep caves with minimal risk to humans or the environment.
  • Report on environmental conditions.  Robot bees could follow air currents, report on temperature and pollution, survey weather systems or track animal movements.
  • Monitor buildings and bridges.  They’d constantly scan every nook and cranny and report back on impending structural failures or dangerous conditions.  Perhaps they could even be fitted with micro-tools for specialized repair.


  • Surveillance.  Tiny and cheap, ideal for spywork, these little guys could be a fly on the wall.  Even if one gets discovered and smushed, he’s got a dozen twins ready to roll.
  • Murder.  Just add a stinger, and the poison of your choice.  Presto, tiny flying death machine.
  • War.  As with murder, biowarfare could be conducted with an unprecedented degree of precision.  Alternatively, bees could be designed to harass aircraft, self-destruct in sensitive places, eat through power lines, disrupt radar arrays, and more.
  • Ecosystem havoc.  The bees in this case would simply have to get eaten by birds.  This is actually a very serious concern.
  • Annoyance.  Mock me, eh?  Well, you won’t be laughing when my army of bees hounds you on the street, gets tangled in your hair and follows you into an important meeting!

Uh oh.  I seem to be veering into super-villain territory, and an absurd villain at that.  Best to turn it back over to you.   What do you think of my proposed applications?  Anything else you can think of?  What other animals do you hope to have a robotic version of?  All comments welcome.

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