Engineers are (rapidly) getting better at building smaller and smaller robots. Last year, for example, researchers at Purdue University made microbots capable of somersaulting their way through people’s colons. Now, in an equally impressive, yet far less invasive, feat of miniature robotics, engineers at MIT have made tiny, flying-insect drones. And while they’re not the smallest bots ever, these robo-insects’ resiliency in flight is astonishing.
MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen is the mastermind behind the flying robots. He, along with several colleagues at MIT, described the robo-insects in a paper recently published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics, noting that they were aiming to emulate the “remarkably agile and robust” capabilities of real flying insects.
While plenty of other small, flying robots are out there, these ones are different for a few reasons. First and foremost, Chen’s flying robots are particularly light. Each one of them weighs less than a gram, which is a weight that some of our readers in California may be particularly familiar with. Also, unlike other super-tiny drones, these use soft, flapping wings rather than motors with rigid, spinning blades.
To achieve flight with the tissue-paper-thin wings, the robots eschew conventional motors for what amount to faux, rubber muscles. A rubber tube covered in carbon nanotubes powers the wings by contracting and expanding rapidly—as in 500 times a second. When voltage is applied to the carbon nanotubes, they produce an electrostatic force that squeezes and elongates the rubber cylinder, hence the contractions.
The result of this design is a robot that really is reminiscent of a bee in the way it flies. The tiny robo-insects are also able to recover after being hit, and can even do somersaults. (Because that’s an important ability for tiny robots, apparently.)
Unfortunately, the bee-like bots do still require off-board power sources. Which means they can only fly as far as their electrical lines will allow. There are potential solutions to that problem however, and in the future, Chen says these bots could literally do the jobs of bees by pollinating flowers. Which, yes, sounds exactly like how the Black Mirror episode, “Hated The Nation,” would start out in real life.
Feature image: MIT