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Autonomous Flying Microrobots (RoboBees)

Autonomously flying microrobots with potential uses in crop pollination, search and rescue missions, surveillance, as well as high-resolution weather, climate and environmental monitoring

Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Inspired by the biology of a bee, researchers at the Wyss Institute are developing RoboBees, manmade systems that could perform myriad roles in agriculture or disaster relief. A RoboBee measures about half the size of a paper clip, weighs less that one-tenth of a gram, and flies using “artificial muscles” compromised of materials that contract when a voltage is applied.

The masterminding of the RoboBee was motivated by the idea to develop autonomous micro-aerial vehicles capable of self-contained, self-directed flight and of achieving coordinated behavior in large groups. To that end, the RoboBee development is broadly divided into three main components: the Body, Brain, and Colony. Body development consists of constructing robotic insects able to fly on their own with the help of a compact and seamlessly integrated power source; brain development is concerned with “smart” sensors and control electronics that mimic the eyes and antennae of a bee, and can sense and respond dynamically to the environment; the Colony’s focus is about coordinating the behavior of many independent robots so they act as an effective unit.

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.

Robert Wood
Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

To construct RoboBees, researchers at the Wyss Institute have developed innovative manufacturing methods, so-called Pop-Up microelectromechanical (MEMs) technologies (please also see the Pop-Up MEMS technology page) that have already greatly expanded the boundaries of current robotics design and engineering.

All areas for the use of RoboBees are available for licensing.

Inspired by the biology of a fly, with submillimeter-scale anatomy and two wafer-thin wings that flap at 120 times per second, robotic insects, or RoboBees, achieve vertical takeoff, hovering, and steering. The tiny robots flap their wings using piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within a carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time. Applications of RoboBees could include distributed environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, and assistance with crop pollination. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

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