A group of Harvard scientists have a vision: to build a tiny robot that can fly, work together in groups, and even pollinate flowers like a honeybee. Meet RoboBee, whose latest feat was published in Science. The 80-milligram robot can fly to a surface, perch on it using electrostatic forces, and gently take off from that surface — saving valuable energy in the process.

E. Farrell Helbling, a Ph.D. candidate in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, was the lead researcher on the RoboBee project.

“They are very cute,” Helbling says of the tiny robots. “They weigh about 80 milligrams, so it takes about 30 of them to weigh a penny.”

The RoboBees have tiny bodies and wings that flap at approximately the same frequency as a bumblebee’s wings.

“The inspiration was really looking at nature and bees,” Helbling says. “Bees are fast and agile insects that are able to perform quick aggressive maneuvers. They can fly through cluttered dynamic environments and they can work both as an individual as well as in a collective. So you could imagine having one collective group task but then each individual also needs to be able to carry out its individual mission staying in the air, flying controlable, sensing the environment and carrying a load. And there was really no robotic or mechanical equivalent that had that biological complexity at that scale and so it's just a really rich area of engineering to explore.”

A group of robots like RoboBees could be invaluable in search and rescue missions or for forming impromptu communication networks. Tiny, swarming robots could also help pollinate crops. 

The RoboBees still need a lot of work, however. The current versions are still attached to a power source with tiny wires. Perching helps them conserve energy, but Helbling eventually wants them to have their own power supplies, and to be able to sense their environment. 

“Our main focus is trying to get onboard sensing so that they can sense their environment and sense their own state — an onboard brain so that they can, you know, update their control parameters and stay in the air, muscle drivers to make sure that the actuators are moving correctly and then, of course, most importantly is a power supply,” Helbling says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

 

 

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