The New Buzz In Micro Robotics: RoboBee

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The field of robotics is one of the most amazing ones that keeps surprising people with the most unexpected innovations and discoveries. The recent one can be counted in the same list – the “RoboBee”. Created by a team of engineers in Harvard University and Northeastern University, the basic objective of this project is to make autonomous insect bees that are capable of independent and sustainable flight. The research included a number of other domains like small-scale energy storage, algorithms that can control individual and cluster of robots, actuation methods, and micro-manufacturing.

The original inspiration for the RoboBees came from insects and flies. The team took special note of the flawless ability of these small creatures to navigate, self-launch, and perform all kind of function with such small bodies. As Robert Wood, the professor of applied sciences and engineering at Harvard and led researchers in this project likes to point out, “Bees and other social insects provide a fascinating model for engineered systems that can maneuver in unstructured environments, sense their surroundings, communicate and perform complex tasks as a collective full of relatively simple individuals. The RoboBees project grew out of this inspiration and has developed solutions to numerous fundamental challenges – challenges that are motivated by the small scale of the individual and large scale of the collective. ”

The current version of RoboBee weighs approx. 84 milligrams that is way more lighter than a natural bee despite same dimensions. As the project moved to next level, the team devised and demonstrated the enhanced capabilities of their miniature robos. While the first generation of these creatures could fly by itself in 2012, the recent one is also capable of swimming on its own. The next objective is to empower them to sense their surroundings with the help of lasers.

Another interesting concept that was associated with these miniature creatures was conservation of energy during flight. In the natural world, this ability is held only by larger flying organisms like birds and bats. In words of Moritz Graule, one of the key researchers from this project, “Many applications for small drones require them to stay in air for extended periods. Unfortunately, smaller drones run out of energy quickly. We want to keep them aloft longer without requiring too much additional energy.”

As Kevin Ma, a post-doc at Wyss Institute and SEAS, puts it, “A lot of different animals use perching to conserve energy, but the methods they use to perch, like sticky adhesives or latching with talons, are inappropriate for a paperclip-size micro robot, as they either require intricate systems with moving parts or high forces for detachment.” In place of using natural adhesives, the team is using electrostatic adhesion now. It is the very same technique that is used for sticking a balloon to sweaters or walls. Graule adds, “In the case of the balloon, however, the charges disspate over time, and the balloon will eventually fall down. In our system, a small amount of energy is constantly supplied to maintain the attraction.”