USC’s penny-sized robotic bee is the most sci-fi thing you’ll see all week

When it comes to robots, it’s easy to get so caught up in the big creations that we forget about the innovation taking place at the smaller end of the spectrum. As the University of Southern California’s new Bee Plus robot proves, that’s a massive mistake.

Its insect-inspired flying bot weighs just 95 milligrams and is smaller than a penny. It’s a spiritual sequel to Harvard University’s RoboBee project from 2013, one of the tiniest flying machines ever built. Bee Plus ups the level of complexity, however — by doubling the number of wings from RoboBee’s two to four. This increased number of wings, mirroring that of a real insect, enables a more lifelike mode of flight.

“This is possible because of the innovation in actuation design,” Nestor Perez-Arancibia, a professor in the University of Southern California’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, told Digital Trends. “As stated in [our] paper, basically each of the four wings is driven by an actuator which is simpler and lighter than those employed in the original RoboBee.”

Perez-Arancibia said Bee Plus “comprises a staggering amount of knowledge collectively acquired by the micro-robotics community over the past 20 years.” In particular, it represents an impressive collaboration between four Ph.D. students — Xiufeng Yang, Ying Chen, Longlong Chang, and Ariel Calderón — who specialize in, respectively, robot design, control theory, aerodynamics, and microfabrication.

University of Southern California in Los Angeles

Bee Plus is capable of perching, landing, swimming, pursuing a path, and avoiding obstacles. Perez-Arancibia said that he can imagine a wide range of potential applications for the tiny robo-critter. These include artificial pollination of flowers, swarm-based research or search and rescue missions, and more. He even has his eye on less Earthbound purposes which could take Bee+ where no bee has gone before.

“I would like to see our robots flying on Mars and Titan,” he said. “I believe that we can create ant-inspired colonies of explorers in which each member has unique capabilities and can perform specialized exploring tasks, [such as taking] geological samples, [measuring] the gases in atmospheres, et cetera.”

To reach this point, it will be necessary to conquer one big current limitation. As of now, Bee Plus can only fly when tethered to a power source.

“To address this issue, my students and I have been working on this problem for the past four years, funded by the NSF,” Perez-Arancibia said. “In fact, we developed a new type of actuation technology: Catalytic artificial muscles. The papers presenting these breakthroughs are coming soon. Theoretical analyses and experiments show that catalytic artificial muscles will enable long-lasting flight employing robotic designs very similar to that of the Bee Plus.”

Provided the team can crack the problem, we’ve got no issue bumping that Bee Plus to an “A” grade.

Emerging Tech

The U.K.’s biggest (and only) asteroid mining company has designs on our skies

Is the founder and CEO of the U.K.'s Asteroid Mining Corporation going to be among the first people to strike it rich in space, or is he just chasing an ambitious but doomed mirage?
Cars

Think hybrids can’t be sporty? BMW’s Vision M Next is here to prove you wrong

BMW unveiled a concept named Vision M Next that shows what sports cars could look like in the not-too-distant future. It is a plug-in hybrid model with 600-hp, and a driver-focused interior packed with futuristic tech features.
Home Theater

Here’s what’s new on HBO and what’s leaving in July 2019

Whether you're a cable lifer or a staunch cord cutter, there's never been a better time to get down with premium TV. July 2019 brings Bohemian Rhapsody and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Computing

Facebook’s crypto isn’t a new Bitcoin, it’s Disney Dollars for a new world order

Facebook has already secured tens of millions in investments for its new cryptocurrency for Facebook known as Libra. The platform is still being developed, but has already brought in backing from Visa, Mastercard and PayPal.
Emerging Tech

Hormone boosts could help astronauts from losing muscle on long space journeys

Reduced gravity conditions during space flight missions can cause extreme muscle loss. Special hormone treatments may be able to help. Here's why that's of growing importance for space travel.
Emerging Tech

Bill Nye the Science Guy talks “solar sailing” and the new space race

If successful, The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 will be a milestone in spaceflight, the first craft to raise its orbit around the planet using just the power of sunlight.
Emerging Tech

Want to work in the stars? Here are six future space jobs you could hold

Ever dreamed of leaving Earth to work in the stars? Here's a list of job titles that might sound like science fiction now, but almost certainly won’t a decade or two in the future.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX is on a hiring spree for its Starlink global internet project

After a string of delays, SpaceX's Starlink project was finally launched last month. Now an analysis of data from SpaceX's job listings shows the company is on a hiring tear, advertising for more and more positions for the project.
Emerging Tech

Ready to roll: Mars 2020 rover fitted with wheels ahead of mission next year

The Mars 2020 rover is getting ready for its trip to the red planet next year. The latest step in readying the rover is installing its wheels and suspension system, which engineers at NASA have been doing this month.
Emerging Tech

You can help search for aliens with an open access release of SETI data

The Breakthrough Initiatives, a program to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, recently analyzed its first three years of radio telescope data. And all of the data collected is being made publicly available in an open data archive.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Illuminated keyboards and a retro gaming console

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Tiny galaxy has huge black hole at its center, gives clues to galactic evolution

A Hubble image shows a tiny galaxy which could hold the clue to unraveling a longstanding question about the evolution of galaxies. Despite its small size, it hosts a feature found in much larger galaxies -- a supermassive black hole.
Emerging Tech

Dark matter galaxy crashed into the Milky Way, causing the ripples in its disk

New research suggests hundreds of million of years ago, the Milky Way collided with Antlia 2, a nearby dwarf galaxy dominated by dark matter. The collision caused ripples in the disk of gas around the Milky Way which we still observe today.
Emerging Tech

Uranus’ rings shine brightly but hold a puzzle for astronomers

New images reveal the rings around Uranus, which are almost invisible to most telescopes. But there's a strange puzzle about them -- why they don't contain any small dust-sized particles.