New video shows Harvard’s creepy quarter-sized ‘RoboBee’ robot insect in flight
By End the Lie
Harvard’s tiny “RoboBee” flying robot is shown in flight in a new video released by the school, flapping its translucent wings 120 times per second, emitting a creepy persistent buzz.
The RoboBee, which is around the size of a quarter, is part of an increasingly fruitful focus on miniature killer drones inspired by insect biology. It is also part of the trend towards miniaturizing the drone war with the half-ounce surveillance drone used in Afghanistan, tiny bombs for small drones and kamikaze drones.
However, there are many animal-inspired drones that aren’t nearly as compact including an autonomous jellyfish drone, a silent drone inspired by owls, an incredibly fast robot inspired by a cheetah, a bird-like drone already seen in the wild and a push towards more lifelike and efficient humanoid robots.
This particular robot has been developed by Harvard researchers for a decade and while it actually flew last summer in a laboratory, the video (below) of the RoboBee in flight was only released by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences today.
The development of the RoboBee – which is actually inspired by a fly’s biology, according to Danger Room – has taken so long because it can’t rely on conventional electromagnetic motors.
Instead, the scientists had to use piezoelectric actuators, tiny strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied, in order to get the wings to flap.
The same technique has been used on earlier versions of the robot, allowing each wing to be operated separately which enables complex maneuvers.
Interestingly, Spencer Ackerman, writing for Danger Room, states, “The idea is to use the teeny-tiny robot for missions like environmental monitoring, crop pollination or search-and-rescue operations, making the Bee a host body for teeny-tiny cameras. So far, the U.S. military isn’t involved in the project.”
While this is true and the military has their own “Micro-Aviary,” the Harvard RoboBee page specifically states that it can be used for “military surveillance.” It seems a bit strange to leave that out.
There are some quite major challenges that remain for the RoboBee project. The most significant is probably the lack of an internal power source.
As one can clearly see in the video, the current design requires an external power source, something which would not be practical for the applications mentioned above.
Maintaining the balance on such a tiny robot is quite difficult, but since the device only uses 19 milliwatts of electricity in flight, an on-board power source is not impossible.
The next phase of the RoboBee project will include a “computationally efficient brain” mounted on the robot that is inspired by the way fruit flies’ brains handle flying in the wind.
“Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only tiny brains,” said Sawyer Fuller, a member of the Harvard research team, according to the Daily Mail. “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.”
According to Professor Robert Wood, the leader of the project, developments made under the RoboBee project could be used in other fields as well.
“This project provides a common motivation for scientists and engineers across the university to build smaller batteries, to design more efficient control systems, and to create stronger, more lightweight materials,” Wood said.
It will be quite fascinating to see how this technology moves forward and how it is eventually used. Hopefully the applications are positive but the fact that the project page at Harvard specifically states that it can be used for military surveillance isn’t all that comforting.
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