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Harvard scientists just figured out how to make their robotic bee 'perch' on objects to save energy

Someday soon, robotic insects may help rescuers search for survivors in the rubble of disasters, mountain climbers communicate over long distances, and intelligence agencies perform covert surveillance. But, in order for engineers to develop these machines, they’ll first have to find a way to make them energy efficient.

Generally speaking, most micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) are only capable of flying for minutes at a time, and, since sustained flight is exhausting, it helps when they can perch up high to conserve energy. Perching is an important ability for flying creatures throughout the animal kingdom – you can see it in birds, bats, and butterflies. Now, you can also see it in Harvard’s RoboBee, a MAV that uses a unique technique to stick and unstick from almost any surface.

At just 86 mg, the RoboBee is even tinier than a real bee, and small even for MAV standards. Its size sometimes makes for awkward takeoffs, but also enables the machine to perch on surfaces using electrostatic adhesion (think static from a balloon) which is too weak for larger MAVs to use. With the RoboBee’s compact size, perching costs 1,000 times less energy than flight, meaning the little drone can conserve energy when not on a mission.

The RoboBee is almost a decade in the making. “This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” Robert J. Wood, professor and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project, said in a press release. “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.”

This isn’t the only remarkable robotic insect we’ve seen lately. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Biomimetics Millisystems Labs recently developed Velociroaches, a team of robotic roaches that can help each other (literally) overcome obstacles.

RoboBee isn’t quite ready to hit the skies independently. Since it doesn’t yet have an onboard power source, the machine needs to be connected to thin wires that supply it with electricity. However, Wood and his team hopes to also develop the RoboBee further, enabling it to perch on more difficult surfaces, such as vertical walls.