Populations of bees, butterflies and other agricultural pollinators have been declining at alarming rates in recent years, putting global food supplies at risk.

Inspired by nature, engineers at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory in collaboration with Northeastern University have created RoboBees, miniature flying robots that can lift off, hover and perch to save energy. They can also swim and fly through wind and dust. The smallest model can flap its wings 120 times per second and weighs just 84mg – less than a real bee.

Although artificial pollination was one of the original ideas behind modelling tiny robots on bees and their ability to communicate with each other and sense their surroundings, these devices could have other uses.

"The RoboBees can eventually be used for search and rescue, for example in areas where larger robots won't fit," says Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory PhD candidate Elizabeth Helbling. "They would also return with the information faster, as you wouldn't have to wait for one robot to come back, but instead have a whole swarm of them covering a forest or similar."

Eventually the engineers want to move RoboBees out of the lab environment into the real world, but it could take another five to 10 years before they are able to fly and swarm on their own.