Autonomous Flying Microrobots (RoboBees)
Writing the engineering “code” for meso-scale flying robots
There is nothing we can take off-the-shelf to create the tiny flapping wings required to mimic the flight of insects. New technologies must be explored to overcome challenges for microfabrication, artificial muscles, bio-inspired sensors, compact power storage, ultra low power computing, and programming methods for a colony of artificial insects.
The Wyss Solution
Inspired by the biology of a bee, researchers at the Wyss Institute, Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Northeastern University are developing RoboBees, man-made systems that could perform myriad roles in agriculture or disaster relief. A Robobee measures about half the size of a paper clip, weighs less than one-tenth of a gram, and flies using “artificial muscles” comprised of materials that contract when a voltage is applied.
The masterminding of the RoboBee has greatly expanded the boundaries of current robotics design and engineering, motivated by the development of 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 under their own, 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.
The viability of mass-producing a RoboBee is another area of significant challenge and innovation as Institute researchers seek to engineer complex wing morphologies, such as flexible veins and membrane structures, while reducing the number of components during assembly and increasing device robustness. Pop-up book MEMS is a novel method to fabricate multi-layered and multi-material structures, such as the components that make up a RoboBee, generated in one plane and then folded out of plane to make complex 3D structures and mechanisms.
- Crop pollination
- Search and rescue missions, particularly after natural disasters
- High-resolution weather and climate mapping
- Traffic monitoring
- Environmental monitoring
The RoboBees Project and Colony Collapse Disorder
One potential application of micro-robotic "insects" might someday be to artificially pollinate crops. However, we do not see robotic pollination as a wise or viable long-term solution to Colony Collapse Disorder. If robots were used for pollination—and we are at least 20 years away from that possibility— it would only be as a stop-gap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented to restore natural pollinators. External funding for the RoboBees project is provided entirely by the National Science Foundation.