A Wing and a Tether: Tiny Robotic Insects Now Capable of Controlled Flight

Meet RoboBees, tiny micro-robots with dragonfly-like wings that beat 120 times a second.

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In light of recent insect-inspired feats of digital derring-do — I just wrote about a clever bug-eyed camera yesterday — let’s hear it for RoboBees, tiny insectile robots that took to the air with purpose for the first time last summer, and who finally hit the interwebs this week. By purpose, I mean they buzzed around for more than a few seconds, executing aerial maneuvers the opposite of haphazardly.

We’ve already seen creepy/cool flying robots capable of sophisticated airborne coordination, but RoboBees — designed by researchers at Harvard’s robotics laboratory — are some of the tiniest around: roughly the size of a quarter and weighing less than a tenth of a gram (down in “grain of sand” or “drop of water” territory, in other words). Despite the name “RoboBees,” they’re actually inspired by the fly biology, their tiny dragonfly-like wings (moving 120 times a second) and slender vertical bodies micro-manufactured at the sub-millimeter scale.

And now they’re responding to sophisticated orders: In the video, one leaps into the air, hovers for a few seconds, then twists ever-so-gently in place; later, you can see its arguably more impressive maneuver, gliding left and right several times to indicate its responsiveness — crude for a biological fly, sure, but astonishing for a fly-bot.

“This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” said Harvard professor Robert J. Wood, principal investigator on the project, in Harvard’s press writeup. “It’s really only because of this lab’s recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well.”

In a paper on the technology, published today in Science, the team describes its fly-like micro-bots as using “high-power-density piezoelectric flight muscles.” Piezoelectric actuators can convert mechanical signals into electrical ones or vice versa (think microphones or earphones), and they work especially well in tiny robotic systems because they’re lightweight and consume relatively little power. In this case, the actuators are made of ceramic strips that expand and contract when subjected to electricity, and each of the fly-bot’s wings — attached to the body-frame by fine plastic hinges — is manipulated independently.

Curiously, the fly-bots are manufactured from sheets of advanced laser-cut material layered together like the rim of a grand piano, but which then “pop up” to take the form of the electromechanical insect itself. It’s a fascinating manufacturing process actually devised by Wood and his team back in 2011, and they say it’s allowed them to much more rapidly iterate new versions — the team has apparently gone through 20 prototypes in the last half-year alone.

But as you’re probably noticing, these fly-bots are also tethered — pet robo-bugs on leads. Those tethers are actually slender power cables, because at the moment, no one offers a power source sufficiently powerful and small enough to attach to the robots’ frame. That’s obviously a key factor toward giving these RoboBees true autonomy.

So what would a fly-bot do? Well spy on people, of course, because hello, military-industrial complex. But paranoia goggles off for a second: the team lists “distributed environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, or assistance with crop pollination” as a few examples, noting that the project could have significant side benefits, like improving fabrication techniques.

Next for the team: tinkering with insect “brains,” getting multiple fly-bots to work together, developing a power source that enables wireless autonomy, performing more “aggressive” maneuvers and, of course, teaching these things how to land properly.