If you have seen or read the Hunger Games series, you likely consider “tracker jackers”—flying robotic wasps programmed to attack and kill—a figment of dystopian fiction. In 2017, drone technology and experts in colony collapse disorder have made them a reality. Electronic insects may be the harrowing nightmare of some, but for agricultural survival (as tens of billions of dollars of food directly rely on bee pollination annually) they may truly be a saving grace. Unlike their cinematic counterpart, they are not created to attack and kill. Quite the contrary—RoboBees are programmed to mimic the nuances of honey bees and pollinate in their absence, sustaining life.

When agrarian society no longer served 19th-century America, we industrialized: making the process more efficient, and creating innovative technologies to cure the country’s ailments. It is a figure of American culture to innovate at the first sight of a deficient system.

The large collapse in bee populations is one more hiccup that we need to ail. There are myriad reasons people believe these bee populations are dying at alarming rates (pesticides, climate change, etc.), but with no settled answer, society is hard-pressed to find a solution to save the dying bees. With no bees, there is a shortage of agriculture, and with that comes more expensive food or absence of food overall. This could lead to a society wherein only certain classes are afforded the privilege to eat. (Maybe that dystopian novel wasn’t so far off…)

RoboBees seem to be a logical cure to our system. Drone technology and Harvard scientists have created a prototype nearly ready to hit the skies—awaiting better controls that don’t cause their bodies to plummet to the earth after brief flight. But do these seeming-saviors also harbor the eerie potential of their Hunger Games and Black Mirror parallel? Weighing only the short-term benefits and completely subverting the actual resurgence of the bee population may come at a cost.

Like in drone technology, automated bees would have the potential for hacking, privacy and other tort invasions, and liability issues when a collision with a human or foreign object inevitably occurs. What happens if someone utilizes this technology to be a literal fly-on-the-wall and discretely absorbs sensitive information? This privacy concern would tap into confidentiality and intellectual property problems, and may reduce national security.

Additionally, land and ownership disputes may arise. Are these considered aircraft? Would they have to be regulated by the FAA, or would the private companies control them? It is worth noting the regulatory issues that may arise in relation to that consideration—and different agencies may want to usurp or stray from that opportunity. Under present drone law, all drones by “hobbyists” and “non-hobbyists” must be registered with the FAA, and operated according to strict laws: specifically, a no flying over people law—regardless of weight and size. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 defines an unmanned aircraft as an “aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.” RoboBees would clearly fall under that statutory definition, giving rise to the obligations under the act, if the FAA chose to enforce, such as licensing and registration.  Further, there are requirements of being close to airports if utilizing commercial-sized drones, but it is likely the bees would not trigger this requirement: unless the fleet were registered as a whole, since individually the bees would hold little force and have to be deployed in groups. Figuring out the regulatory landscape will be of utmost importance, but it is likely that drone law will bind.

Additionally, bees that can’t die would allow pesticides to be used more frequently, which ultimately could create cheaper crops and reinvigorate the companies that are struggling financially from public-pushback on pesticide use (i.e. Monsanto). Cheaper crops allow more people to eat fruits and vegetables and could ultimately aid in curbing food shortage and food deserts.  With that, however, could come environmental protection issues—with more frequent interactions with the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

If RoboBees show anything, it is that a loss or failure in one area can lead to innovation. The problems of who gets to regulate, and what happens when potential privacy and tort issues arise will be of utmost importance, but this innovation may truly be the saving grace to growing food shortages, food deserts, and lack of affordability of crops. If beauty is in the eye of the bee-holder, then Harvard scientists may have it all.

—Emily Paige Lipka



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