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.
At tiny scales, small changes in airflow can have an outsized effect on flight dynamics, and the control system has to react that much faster to remain stable.
The robotic insects also take advantage of an ingenious pop-up manufacturing technique that was developed by Wood’s team in 2011.
Sheets of various laser-cut materials are layered and sandwiched together into a thin, flat plate that folds up like a child’s pop-up book into the complete electromechanical structure.
The quick, step-by-step process replaces what used to be a painstaking manual art and allows Wood’s team to use more robust materials in new combinations, while improving the overall precision of each device.
“We can now very rapidly build reliable prototypes, which allows us to be more aggressive in how we test them,” says Ma, adding that the team has gone through 20 prototypes in just the past six months.
Applications of the RoboBee project could include distributed environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, or assistance with crop pollination, but the materials, fabrication techniques, and components that emerge along the way might prove to be even more significant.
For example, the pop-up manufacturing process could enable a new class of complex medical devices. Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, in collaboration with Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute, is already in the process of commercializing some of the underlying technologies.
“Harnessing biology to solve real-world problems is what the Wyss Institute is all about,” says Wyss Founding Director Don Ingber. “This work is a beautiful example of how bringing together scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to carry out research inspired by nature and focused on translation can lead to major technical breakthroughs.”
CSG has written various articles about ‘Robots’. You can view some of them below.