Beedrones. Ready for Plan Bee?
If an Industrial Design student gives her prototype of a crop-pollinating drone the name Plan Bee, then the hint seems clear: we have a plan b if the current method, being pollination by insects, no longer works satisfactorily. But is that really what Anna Haldewang of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD, Georgia, USA) wants to communicate?
In various online interviews, the student states that her pollinating drone, with the morphology of an inverted flower and the size of a human hand, is meant as an educational tool for the awareness of the bee mortality. A drone, she argues, is more easy to observe during it’s pollination work than a real bee. This is already an assumption worth a discussion, but she also states that the design can be used "peacefully" along with the insect as a biological pollinator. Say what?
Her drone could furthermore also be used on a large agricultural scale. The dean of the design department, Victor Ermoli, states that the design is very suitable for the commercial market. He considers an implementation on an industrial scale feasible and for some years now, in case of a selection of innovative study projects, SCAD has been working with companies such as Microsoft, HP and Dell & Mattel. Big companies also seem to have their influence at the board of SCAD’s table. They are seen as serious partners where economical decisions are being made.
In 2017 Anna Haldewang applied for a patent for the technology and the design of her prototype, and she hopes to launch the drone on the market in 2019. You can wonder how her first goal, education and awareness, relates to her and the faculties ambition to introduce the drone to an Anglo-Saxon market, where bare market forces are sacred, and technology is often seen as a solution to all problems (also known as tech fix, for example DDT in the field of agribusiness and Geo-engineering in the domain of climate warming). The focus of the education board seems to be more the development of 'sexy' and 'arty' designs for the international market, than the development of products aimed at education and awareness, such as in this case a pollinating bee drone. *
The development of drones is not a isolated phenomenon. Robotisation has been hot topic in recent years and to give an example, the multinational Monsanto (a globally operating biotech company of products for the agricultural sector amongst which chemically treated seeds) puts a lot of money into its own research team focused on the task to develop a genetically modified ant with the qualities of a pollinating bee combined with a ant species specific resistance to pesticides.
How can we relate to aforementioned developments and how to think something of it? Because of the complex challenges of our time we decided for Bee Heroes to be an interdisciplinary project, offering a broad and multi-perspective view on contemporary present-day phenomenon’s. An enquiry where science, philosophy, art and social criticism come together and an approach in which reflection is translated to (collective) action. The project approach is investigative and inquisitive, based on the belief that the bee mortality is not an isolated phenomenon. We observe the social developments surrounding the bee problem and try to interpret it in a nuanced way and where possible, offer solutions.
These solutions are often very concrete and involve (small) actions and changes in buying behaviour. But these practical actions are best perpetuated if they stem from a consciousness that a democracy cannot sustain in a healthy way without active contributions from 'its' citizens. That limitations form part of all life and that a lot, but not everything is feasible, ergo utopian thinking is not realistic (and often even dangerous or at least totalitarian). That everyone can help in his or her way, and therefore everyone can take responsibility. And focusing on the subject of this piece of writing, that technology is not the Holy Grail that will solve all our problems.
In the discussion about bee mortality, including the worldwide phenomenon of the Colony Collision Disorder and the state of the food industry, positions are often very polemic and dualistic. With high tech believers on one side of the spectrum and the nostalgic minded on the other (the 'everything used to be better' and 'nature solves everything' romantics) we try to take a more reflexive intermediate stance. In the development of drones for the pollination industry, the danger according to Bee Heroes is particularly that the economic framework (neoliberal or a strongly market-oriented capitalism with less and less social democratic embedment), for a large part, influences and steers the way of product placement. And thus, an initial idea (in this case a nature-cooperating and educational bee drone) in practice becomes a patented, globally implemented product, which, in order to be commercially interesting, is sold and promoted as a large-scale substitute for insect pollinators. Thus, the societal embedment of a new technological product is important. And there is, in our opinion, too little critical examination at the universities. And is this not largely the case because universities are increasingly dependent of the business sector for their research funding? If you hold a different opinion, please let us know and respond to this blog. We would just love that!
Would it not be much better if, instead of most money invested in technical toys for the market, more money went to research for a healthier agriculture, with less or at least a different kind of poison policy **. More money for research on a environmentally friendly pollination sector and inclusive agriculture. More money to spent on local initiatives that try to regain balance on a small scale (both by the program that they develop and in the sense of awareness, for example by creating healthy and long-term biodiversity areas, that not only provide for healthy pollen, nectar and biotopes for the insects but also in doing so increase the local social cohesion and well-being).
A comment on an article about the prototype by Anna Haldewang (on the website of designboom.com, an online architecture and design magazine) makes sense: "Smart tech with a nice touch of art. Do bees and butterflies a favour: plant some flowers. "(Jim).
Too often the emphasis is on spectacular innovations, and too little attention goes to the basic, universal principles and needs of life, such as the need to take good care of the others and things, and that this just takes time, sometimes is very boring, usually not implies rocket science, but just requires dedication, and all this knowing that indeed that basic effort does not necessarily guarantee that something still could not go wrong...haha.
Research similar to Anna's drone is carried out by senior researcher at the Chemical Faculty of the Japanese National Institute, Eijiro Miyako, who has developed a pollinating drone based on a $ 100 toy drone and a self-designed sticky gel.
Eijiro is a young scientist who, inspired by Steven Spielberg, science fiction films and the character Emmett 'doc' Brown from the Back to the Future series, finds bee robots to be 'really cool' and nanometre scale science and drone technology 'pretty awesome'. Does a young, curious and creative researcher like Eijiro have any idea of the bigger picture? All this makes me think of Albert Einstein's worldview, who, known as a great physicist and inventor of the theory of relativity, was mainly humanist, social democrat and passionate contributor of the value of imagination, beauty, kindness and empathy:
"Our time is characterized by great achievements in the field of scientific knowledge and the technical applications of these insights. Who would not be enthusiastic about this? But let us not forget that with human knowledge and skills alone, human existence does not lead to a happy and dignified one…What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus is for me of far greater importance than all the achievements of the investigative and constructive spirit. "
The Faculty of Computer Science at Harvard University also been working for a number of years now on bee drones. In a number of online articles you can read: "Modern robotics is poised to tackle any remaining scientific hurdles to produce pollinating drones. We will only be a short while before "robobees" will become a reality. "And:" But for those worried about colony collapse and the implications of humanity, never fear, robobees are on the way! "In the context of the online magazine with the epic name 'Big Think. Smarter, Faster. Your daily Microdose of Genius' this last quote certainly is a funny final sentence of an article, but if we only look at the drone phenomenon with postmodern irony, the current market is going to do its job enhancing the probability that bee drones will be the faulty and very expensive substitutes of pollinating insects in a near future – worth a pile of cult scifi scenarios in the making…
Fortunately, there’s a growing number of scientists holding a sobering and realistic plea for more balance and a (re)connection with nature, thus also with ourselves. The tireless and infectious funny English biologist and bumblebee expert Dave Goulson for example, indicates that replacing pollinating insects with small robots would bankrupt the world economy, even if you made the drones very cheap. "Even though bee bots are really cool, there are a lot of things we can do to protect bees instead of replacing them for robots." Just like Goulson says that bees, who have been doing their work for about 120 million years now, pollinate a lot better than any technical feat, we think it’s all about the right balance, and that this may not always be easy to obtain or regain, but that in the current global economy the emphasis is too much on technology and too little on working with nature and that not all so-called progress really is progress. This without downplaying the value of technological innovation, but within the right socio-economic embedment and not merely based on the mantra that everything is soluble with...
Perhaps we neglect the basis too much: that partially intangible nature that we are part of, depend on, and that just as well gives us our lust for life, if we are susceptible to it, have an eye for it and develop intuition for it. Or as Einstein said: "Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better."
* For the technical operation of Anna Haldewang's drone prototype, go to https://www.designboom.com/technology/haldewag-plan-bee-drone-03-03-2017/
** With a different kind of pesticides policy we mean, among other things, less and preferably a phasing out the neonicotinoids insecticides, and changing the current preventive spraying policy. Common policy now is to use pesticides poison before a problem occurs in the crop; this being a substantial earning model of crop protection companies such as Syngenta and the German chemicals group Bayer (which, incidentally, may be taking over Monsanto in the not too distant future, the EC agreed at the end of March under conditions).
Sources (searching terms drones and pollination)
E = MC2. The biography of the formula that changed the world David Bodanis | 2000
Not without each other. Flowers and insects | Louis Schoonhoven a.o. | 2015
The flight of the bumblebee | Dave Goulson | 2017
Image 1: artistic impression of Eijiro Miyako's drone research project
Image 2 to 4: Plan B drone by Anna Haldewang (the 4th with photo credit SCAD)