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Harvard Develops Miniature Robotic Insects Capable of Sustained Flight [VIDEO]

May 02, 2013 04:03 PM EDT

The idea of dozens of miniature, robotic flying insects buzzing overhead sounds just as cool as it does creepy. But no matter how you feel about flying drone bugs, they're here.

"This is the culmination of over a decade of work I've been trying to do to get this result," said Harvard engineering professor Robert Wood, who runs a lab at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, according to Discovery News. "This is the first demonstration that you can make insect-like robots and control them in flight."

Wood and his team spent years perfecting the technologies of microaerodynamics, miniature power supplies, and micromanufacturing and more to bring flight to a robot not much bigger than a coin.

The robots are half the size of a paper clip and weigh less than a tenth of a gram. When the first one took flight last summer Pakpong Chirarattananon, a graduate student and co-author of a paper published this week in Science, said he was so excited he couldn't sleep. When he first got the machines to fly, he excitedly sent a 3 a.m. email with the subject line, "Flight of the RoboBee."

Perfecting the controlled flight of such a small robot required numerous breakthroughs in engineering.

"We've had robots in the past that have flown but they haven't stabilized themselves in flight and couldn't generate enough body torques," Kevin Ma, a co-author and graduate student said. "The new design controls each wing separately. That was another huge innovation."

In a press release, Ma said that the team has to come up with a small-scale alternative for just about everything to get the RoboBee design perfect. The robotic insects take advantage of a pop-up manufacturing technique that Wood developed in 2011.

"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," Wood said.

"We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything. We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target."

Inspired by the biology of a fly, the RoboBee can beat its wafer-thin wings at 120 times per second.

"Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only tiny brains," said coauthor Sawyer B. Fuller, a postdoctoral researcher on Wood's team who essentially studies how fruit flies cope with windy days. "Their capabilities exceed what we can do with our robot, so we would like to understand their biology better and apply it to our own work."

The robots are still tethered to a thin power cable because there is currently no functional solution to the problem of energy storage on microrobot itself.

Potential uses for the RoboBees include distributed environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, or assistance with crop pollination, Harvard reports. But the innovative technology used to develop them may prove more significant.

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